The assisted living facility administrator confirmed that Mom was refusing to bathe. If this continued, she would be transferred to a facility that provided a higher level of personal care. Mom loved her apartment.
“Mom, you know you need to bathe, right?”
“Of course I do.”
Her dementia hadn’t reached the point of not understanding the concept, but her perception of need had changed.
As her only daughter, assisting with Mom’s hygiene fell to me. Knowing patience was not my strength, my brother asked, “What will you do if Mom throws a tantrum like you used to when you didn’t want to do something?”
We would know soon, after I arrived the next Tuesday. “Mom, let’s go out for coffee and pie as soon as you wash up.”
“I had a bath yesterday.”
“Staff says it’s been more than a week.”
“I just put on clean clothes.”
“We’ll fold them to wear after.”
As we argued, the volume of my voice increased and my neck and shoulder muscles tightened. Mom sat on the bed, back as straight as her osteoporosis allowed, hands folded tightly in her lap, head high and eyes forward. I realized that Mom would forget the confrontation in 10 minutes, but for days I’d carry the guilt that I shouted at her.
I took a deep breath, sat beside her on the bed and cradled her time-wrinkled hand. In a soft adult-to-child voice I said, “You cared for me when I was little. Now it’s my turn to help you. You need to bathe regularly to live here.”
My mother’s head snapped around. She thrust her face inches from mine, pale blue eyes blazing, lips locked, but said nothing. I was shocked. It was the expression she used when I was a teenager and had deeply angered her. The look still frightened me.
“I want a tub bath so I can sprinkle in lavender bath salts. I don’t like the shower.”
“Mom, I understand, but the shower is all we have and you’ve bathed in it before. We’ll use lavender-scented talcum powder after your bath.”
Her shoulders slumped.
“Are you going to undress yourself?”
A firm “No.”
She was compliant while I removed her clothes. Comfortable that we’d settled our disagreement, I started the water.
At the sound of the apartment door opening, I whirled around to see my naked Mom outside the apartment, in the hallway, pressing the down elevator button.
I grabbed a towel and ran. As the elevator door opened, I wrapped her up and moved back into the apartment. I locked the door and sat her on the shower bench.
Parenting my parent was no simple task. What made my normally docile 82-year-old mother become a streaker?
“Mom, why did you leave the apartment?”
“You said we’d go for a car ride.”
“Yes, we will as soon as you bathe and dress. I promise.”
My offer of the soapy washcloth produced no action; she glanced at it and looked away.
“Aren’t you going to wash?”
She shook her head. I was on my own. Mom sat motionless while I proceeded with a service I never imagined providing. Embarrassment at seeing her naked was nothing compared to my discomfort washing her.
Once safely out of the shower and toweled off, Mom dressed, picked up her jacket and strolled to the door, smiling.
At the restaurant, I was surprised that she didn’t have to order. The waitress brought her banana cream pie and coffee. They knew her well here.
Back at her apartment, Mom smiled and hugged me. “Thank you for a wonderful day.” She’d forgotten about our earlier altercation.
“See you next week, Mom. I love you,” I said as I headed for the door.
Years later, telling my “Mom the Streaker” story to friends whose parents are entering the dementia dimension, I chuckle as my mind conjures up the picture of Mom’s naked, saggy backside as she determinedly punches that elevator button.
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