The Geography of Memory

A pilgrimage through Alzheimer's

Can You Care for a Parent Whose Beliefs You Have Rejected?

You may have more in common than you think.

By the time I was 16, I was questioning our family’s politically conservative Baptist beliefs. Then I watched as one college friend after another was drafted and sent off, against his principles, to fight in Vietnam. I watched a string of landlords refuse to rent their apartments to my friends, a white man and a black woman who were, after all, married.

I felt I needed to take a stand.

Making the Break

Around the time I graduated from college, I joined the Episcopal Church. My mother, for whom liberal was a bad word, considered the Episcopal church liberal. I also joined anti-war and civil rights protests. By that time, my father had been dead for almost a decade. When I saw my mother at Christmas and in the summer she would ask me with genuine puzzlement why my friends were against the war. They were ungrateful, she thought, and self-indulgent.

Finding Things in Common

During those years, I loved my mother almost without reservation.  After all, she had heroically kept our family together after my father's death. But I felt profoundly distant from her. That kind of disaffection between generations in the sixties was not unusual. Our parents had lived through the Depression and World War II. And so, perhaps naturally, they wanted America to wield power over world events. In contrast, their children were leery of American arrogance and angry about our impulse to invade other countries. Add to this political difference the fact that I was doing a PhD in English and my mother didn’t like to read.


Not that either my mother or I ever talked about this. We talked about clothes and her flower arranging and gardening and our common friends. When I visited, I went to her church with her. When she visited us, she trooped to my church. But our religous lives—and we both believed that faith was crucial—kept diverging.

Then I had children. She adored them. She made that plain. She’d have pulled herself across the Sahara by her fingernails to spend time with them. At her request, I sent our oldest to spend a couple of weeks with her every summer. This proved to be a wonderful way to knit the family together. My mother and I rallied around the children and holidays and birthdays. We loved one another, but we had very little in common.

When I began helping to care for my mother that was the state of our relationship.

What I didn’t know then is that Alzheimer’s caregivers and patients share enforced intimacy. That intimacy felt awkward at first. I learned more than I wanted about the details of my mother’s financial life, for example. And eventually I had to help her walk, help her eat. I learned to bathe her. My sister and I made decisions about her doctors and her medication. My husband and I phoned her every day and chatted about her smallest joys and worries. I could no longer escape my mother by placing holidays and children between us.

Slowly my mother and I did, in fact, forge a deep and powerful connection. Our relationship grew little by little in the years before she died.

In earlier blogs I have written about how that happened—how it's possible to make that happen. And how that kind of connection can save both a patient and her caregiver from depression and misery. If you're interested, check out How to Connect with an Alzheimer’s Patient, and Alzheimer’s: Who Says They’re speaking Gibberish, and Alzheimer’s: To Set Them Straight Or Not, and Does it Pay to Care for a Parent with Dementia?

That bond I formed with my mother—I count it as one of the greatest gifts of my life.

Half of all Americans Change their Religious Affiliation by Age 25

I wasn't the only one who rejected her parent's religion. According to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, over half of Americans change their religious affiliation before the age of 24. http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/ It stands to reason, then, that in middle age many of us care for parents whose faith we have rejected. That must be part of the awkwardness of our care-taking roles: many of us are participating in very intimate relationships with parents from whom we have chosen different paths.

An Epiphany

During many of the years I cared for my mother, the work felt like a horrible, grim slog. I felt that way until one dreadful night in Dallas. I had landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, rented a car, and taken a wrong turn on the way to I-635. It was after one a.m. I had no GPS. I was exhausted and finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. One fast expressway led to another and I had no idea how to get back on I-635. The lights were off at all the fast food places on the access roads and there was no place to ask for directions. I kept on driving. I was inside a nightmare, speeding further and further from where I needed to go.

I began to realize that I was lost in a bigger sense. There was no clear beginning and no discernible end to this care-taking. And then surprisingly, I grasped that my sister and my mother and I were on a pilgrimage. It dawned on me that I was acquiring spiritual disciplines: hospitality, patience, prayer, how to wait, how to let go. I realized that I could probably never learn these things any other way.

The next evening, I held my mother's hand and the two of us said the twenty third Psalm. It was one of the few Biblical passages she could still remember. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I heard her repeat those words as smoothly as if her memory had been perfect.

What I understood as I kissed her good night and left her building was this: for all our differences, when my mother and I said that psalm together we probably meant pretty much the same thing.

Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during the last decade.

 Find GEOGRAPHY at: http://amzn.to/1kHNpgN

 Jeanne's web site: www.JeanneMurrayWalker.com

Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D., is a professor of English at the University of Delaware.

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