Forget me not

“My mother has vascular dementia.
Seeing her every day is a blessing, but a mixed one.”


By Fr Richard Leonard SJ
This is an extract from his latest book, ‘Why God?’

I love the fact that All Saints Day is followed by All Souls.

Saints are closer to us than we sometimes think and we all want our souls to enjoy eternal life.

My mother has vascular dementia. Her memory of people and places long past is sharp, but her geriatrician says, “Your mother’s brain cannot make new memories.” I’d never heard it expressed like that before. It was helpful and freeing. My brother and I had hoped that our mother’s final years would be enjoyable and serene. She deserved it. By middle-class standards, Mum has had more than a few heavy crosses to bear. Her own mother died in childbirth when Mum was two years old. She was only married eight years when her 36-year-old husband, my father, had a cerebral berry aneurysm and dropped dead.

She was a 32-year-old widow with three children under seven. I was two.

The last family photograph of the Leonards before Tom Leonard died on August 2, 1966. From left to right: Peter (7), Joan (32), Richard (2), Tracey (5) and Tom (36).

Mum never remarried. “I was a catch, but I had the three of you,” she would joke. She never seriously looked for another husband. In 1988, my sister had a catastrophic car accident and became a quadriplegic. Tracey was 28. Mum was 56. After the best part of a year in the spinal unit, Mum nursed Tracey at home for the next twenty-seven years, rising every night at midnight, 3 am, and 6 am to turn her daughter. Tracey never got a bed sore.

My mother always prayed that Tracey would die first. That prayer was answered quite unexpectedly on March 18, 2017. Mum then prayed that she would die soon afterwards: “I’ve done what I was put on this earth to do. I know you and Peter will be OK and now I’m ready for heaven.”

“You’re quite confident about where you’re going, aren’t you?” I’d ask.

“I’d like to see God deny me heaven,” was her blunt reply. I would like to see that too.

Mum’s prayers to die have not yet been answered, despite my best efforts. On her more lucid days Mum says, “I know I am losing my memory and I’m not enjoying any of this. I hate it. Heaven has to be better than this, so I want you to pray that God will take me tonight.”

The next day, in an unusual ability to recall a conversation from the day before, Mum says, “Well, your prayers are hopeless, I’m still here.”

With gallows humour I reply, “They’re going to be answered one day.”

Always having the final word, she says, “Well I hope God finds me soon.”

Mum’s dementia is accelerating dramatically. Because of three falls she had last year, none of which she can remember, she is now in an excellent Catholic aged care facility. Though they look after her beautifully, have Mass and other activities for the residents, after decades of running her home and nursing my sister, Mum is bored to tears.

The phone is now beyond her. Taking her out for meals is getting harder too. She gets frustrated at not being able to follow the conversation.

Seeing her every day is a blessing, but a mixed one. Some days she’s calm with glimpses of her old self back, her quick and sharp wit ready to go. Most days she is confused about where she is, why she’s there. The toughest days are when she is resentful and angry at what she perceives we have done to her and demands that we go home — right now. Changing the topic quickly doesn’t work.

There is one man at Mum’s aged care facility who sits in the common room and calls out loudly all day long, “Help me. Help me.” It’s a piercing cry. He is the Greek chorus in this human tragedy. No greater number of people have ever lived this long in human history. We are powerless in the face of the ravages of age and as we wait to die.

There is no exclusive patron saint for sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Apparently, they share St Dymphna, with her primary focus being those who are mentally ill. St Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of the elderly because he was particularly kind to old people in the thirteenth century. Ironically, he is also the patron saint of finding things.

I think people like my mother, and the growing number of us who will be in this state before we die, need their own patron saint whose only portfolio is to pray with and for them, their families and the dedicated staff who care for them.

In the meantime, I hope St Anthony helps God find Mum and take her home because her bags are packed and she’s ready to go.

Buy your copy of the book ‘Why God?’ here, with a discount applied throughout May 2024.

Banner image of an Alzheimer’s / dementia ribbon by unomat, Canva.

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