I woke up this morning with that silly Oompa Loompa song in my head. The one that keeps asking, “What do you do with a child that’s a brat?” And what do you do? That, and the memory of my favorite aunt.
She has always been my favorite aunt, as far back as I could remember. She was my favorite even when I was a young child, easily impressed with outward appearances. Despite being the age where you are unreasonably attracted to beautiful things and repulsed by flawed things, I loved my large aunt with the huge purple birthmark across her face – because she listened, and she didn’t judge, and she understood. She got me.
As I grew up and went through all the crazy phases that teenagers go through; as I made up and gave into all the stories and rules about life that teenagers make up and impose upon themselves, she was there for me. She was a constant. In a world of unreasonable adults who did things that didn’t make sense, she made sense.
We traveled together, to Lake Placid with her sister, to Vermont. I visited her often, nursed her sick cat. Imagined, with her, a remodel of her townhouse, a remodel that always got put off just a little longer. Spent time with her friends, enjoying them as she enjoyed them. Although my father had moved to the same town that she lived in, I saw her more than he did and spent more time with her than with him.
She was best woman at my wedding.
Later, I invited her to join a group of my friends who made an annual pilgrimage to the Outer Banks for a week, staying in the same house, shopping at the same stores, taking the same walks, the same day trip to the nearby Ocracoke Island. She fit in beautifully with the group, adopting our rituals where she wanted to, finding her own way when she didn’t.
Only something was off. Perhaps it was when we got massages – a special self-treat for my birthday – I was happy enough with mine but she wasn’t happy with hers. It sounded like it had been okay but, somehow, hearing how happy I was with mine made hers seem inadequate and she fussed all the way back to the house about what an expensive mistake it had been – and then kept talking about it, all evening and into the next day. I felt so bad for her unhappiness that my own contentment was overshadowed, and my treat was spoiled.
And something else was off: she repeated everything I said. Like a little kid, repeating his sister to get her goat. Only, in agreement. I’d say, “What a beautiful morning!” and she’d say, “Oh, it is a beautiful morning.” And so on, and so on. I thought, at first, this was a hangover from the workshop on active listening that she had completed just before joining us at the beach. But it started to get grating. No one else seemed to notice, and I think I was the only one she was doing it to. Until finally I lost it and screamed at her to stop repeating me, that it was annoying me.
“It’s annoying when people repeat you all the time,” she said. And I went to bed, too furious to do anything else.
We drifted apart after that. Although I sent her Christmas presents every year, and birthday presents, and sent them to her office because there seemed to be something squirrelly about sending them to her home – they always seemed to get lost – I never received gifts back from her or even Christmas cards. I tried calling her: at work and home, I got her voice mail and she never returned my calls; she never picked up or returned the messages I left on her cell phone, voice or text. She didn’t respond to emails.
I made it about me: I had so offended my sweet, wonderful aunt, who I loved so much and who had so irritated me, that she wanted nothing to do with me now. I asked my dad if she was okay and he said she seemed okay; when was the last time he had seen her? Oh, just a couple of weeks ago, it must have been… Easterish? (This in November.) I became frantic, called her sister.
“Oh, she can’t work her cell phone,” she told me. “She forgets to charge it and doesn’t know how to pick up messages from her voice mail. I keep showing her but she keeps forgetting.”
I chalked it up to elder-frustration with technology.
Several years later, my younger aunt called me to tell me that she was moving my favorite aunt to live near her, shutting up her home. I was stunned.
“She doesn’t have any money left,” she told me. “She spent it all. And she can’t work anymore.”
What the heck?
“I went to her house, and it was filled, from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with things she had bought online and through QVC. She bought things, then she bought the same things again. She hadn’t even opened the boxes. I don’t know how we’re going to get rid of it all. The money is gone.”
“She can’t work anymore. She doesn’t take care of herself. She doesn’t bathe or wash her hair. Her personal hygiene is completely gone. I’m moving her into assisted living.”
Shit. She was in her 60’s.
After that, I heard nothing from my favorite aunt. Every now and then I’d get bulletins from my other aunt: my favorite aunt was an escape artist, constantly trying to leave the facility, found wandering in the parking lot looking for her car so she could drive back to her hometown, to a home long gone. She moved facilities and then again. And again. She didn’t like the men who were in the facility with her; she would randomly haul off and smack them in passing. She moved facilities again.
I went to see her a couple of years ago and she seemed almost normal, she still looked impossibly young and she still looked like herself. There was a little hesitation at first.
“This is Libby,” my other aunt told her. “She came to see you, isn’t that nice?” Or something like that.
“Libby, it is nice to see you,” she said after a split second, with her same friendly smile. I realized that, although she looked like she knew what was going on, she didn’t remember me, didn’t have a clue who I was.
And a penny dropped. This was what she had been doing at the beach – putting together words that she heard other people, people she trusted, saying, when she was lost and didn’t know how to navigate. Only then she was still figuring out her coping mechanism; she didn’t have it down yet. I wondered how I could have been so blind to it. How we all missed it.
What do you do? Oompa loompa.
I’ve seen this again since then, in my in-laws. First, my mother in law, refused to exercise, refused to leave her chair, refused to leave the house. People reasoned with her and she refused to be reasonable. It didn’t make sense. Until she fell and ended up in a physical rehab center and the doctor there asked her, very neutrally, to make change for a dollar. And she couldn’t. It became clear then that she had lost her capacity to navigate the world outside her home and that was why she didn’t like the leave the house. Now I’m seeing it again with my father in law: what had, at first, just seemed like caregiver burnout and hearing loss has now shifted. His need to organize his desk, a sisyphean chore, never finished, has taken over his life. He kills computers, argues with robocalls, forgets everything we tell him the moment after we tell him.
What do you do?
It is really hard, when you are adult, to evaluate what is going on with your elderly parents. Are they being unreasonable to a degree that there is clearly something wrong with their brains? Is this obsession with Fox News an indication that they have lost their mind? Or are all those little things that always irritated you about them just magnified because you’re an adult now? My mother, for example, I think she still has most of her rocks, but she plays all the old mind games that she used to play with us as kids, that drove us all crazy, all her old passive-aggressive games. And, because she has nothing else to do – literally, because of her chronic illness which has incapacitated her and Covid, which has given her an excuse to double-down on never leaving her house; so all she does is watch TV and cruise the internet – because she has nothing else to do, she plays these games with my sister, who is her primary caregiver. She drives my sister up the wall by telling her home health aides that they can take vacation and then “forgetting” to tell my sister that she will need to arrange alternate coverage so that my sister has to take time off from work to fill in. Or mom calls contractors and arranging for them to make “improvements” to the house and then “forgets” to tell my sister, who pays the bills. Or, when her doctor’s office calls to move her appointment, accepts the new time, then “forgets” to tell my sister until the morning of the new appointment, so that my sister has to take time off from work at the last minute. These are annoying; but they are also par for the course with my mom, right up there with the time 20 years ago when she made us late to her own father’s funeral.
One of my friends from high school told me that when his mother, a cranky person all her life, lost her marbles, it made her forget all of the real and imagined slings and arrows she had suffered, and she became the sweetest person, and lived a life of peace and joy. We should all be so lucky.
So the next time an older person seems unreasonable, you have to ask yourself: are they, like my mother, just becoming more of who they are; or is there something cognitive going on?
And then, what do you do?