Constructs of Reality

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I’ve been thinking about constructs. What are those, I hear you ask? They’re the way we make sense of our world and how we construct our reality.

For my mother, living with dementia requires her to constantly work around her disability. Mum’s memory of even the most recent events is fiendishly unreliable. Her ability to problem solve is severely compromised. And her grasp of her current situation, the rest home she’s lived in for the past five years and the staff and residents she’s come to know during that time, comes and goes.

It’s like she is acting in some strange play with half the cues missing, particularly when she’s just woken up.

This morning Mum phoned around ten.

“There must be somewhere better than this,” she said, her voice wobbling. It was hard to get a coherent story. It turns out Mum had just woken up, boiling hot. Her heater was going full force and the sun was streaming into her room.

“The staff here, they just don't care,” said Mum. “Not one single person has looked in on me. It’s shameful; it’s neglect!”

My first reaction was doubt. From my experience, I was pretty sure that the staff would have already checked on Mum several times that morning, offering her breakfast and help with getting up. Mum, who prefers to sleep in, would have declined all offers.

While that might have been her experience, it certainly wasn't her recollection.

In the absence of recent memories, Mum constructs her reality based largely upon what she is observing at that very moment. So instead of denying her reality, it simply started right there.

First of all, I listened. It wasn't hard to empathize with how Mum was feeling, both physically, having woken up seriously overheated, and emotionally, feeling completely ignored by the staff. So for a while, all I did was reflect on how horrible it must have been. Then after a bit, when Mum was calmer and had cooled off, I made some tentative suggestions.

Could it be that her room was hot because I had turned the heater up the previous day?

“Yes,” said Mum, “that could be true.”

“And maybe,” I ventured, “the sun was unseasonably hot because the weather is on the improve at last?”

“Quite possibly,” Mum replied.

I didn't go near the business of whether the staff had looked in on Mum that morning. That’s something for me to follow up on with them. Mum happily seemed to have forgotten all about it. Five minutes later, she was feeling much better.

“Thank you for listening, dear. It’s good to talk to someone sympathetic.” Mum paused to greet a staff member who was walking past. “Here comes Beatrice. I love Beatrice. She always gives me hugs. The staff here, they’re so lovely.”

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

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