Q. My Mother in Law is a widow. Let’s call her Sophie. My husband is her only son. She has always been an expert on how to induce guilt. She must have studied one time with Dr. Sigmund Freud. Before she became ill with dementia, she was tolerable. In fact she even seemed to like me. The girl my husband (let’s call him Jim) was engaged to before meeting me was disliked intensely by Sophie. Until recently, we got along fine. I was pretty good at humoring her along especially when she tried to control my husband and me. But, now something has happened. It would seem that since she developed Alzheimer, she confuses me with my husband’s former girl friend. Her comments are angry. She curses me under her breath, thinking I don’t hear her, She accuses me of trying to steal her money out of her bank accounts. I can’t help it. I hate her and what she is doing to us. Jim is besides himself. He blames me and says I am not sympathetic enough. He feels guilty and indirectly responsible for his mother’s suffering. He lets her influence his behavior even toward me. Our marriage is in deep trouble because of her. I realize that she is sick and will get worse over time. I feel helpless. I am at a loss. What should I do now?
A If you are reading this Blog, there is a good chance that you know someone, a family member, a friend or even a neighbor who has been afflicted by this terrible disease. Joseph Jebelli recently wrote a book entitled: “In Pursuit of Memory” (beautifully reviewed by David Shenk). The daughter in law (call her Jane) needs to read this work and she will know what needs to be done. Mr. Jebelli explains what happens when you are afflicted by Alzheimers. It’s like a candle burning itself out , and the mind fades and vanishes. He explains this 21st century scourge scourge as follows “This is what happens: this disease imperceptibly, insidiously attacks an otherwise healthy human being, eating away at normal brain function by ripping out neurons and synapses one by one. It eliminates our understanding of the world around us , the recognition of people we love, and ultimately our basic sense of who we are. WE LOSE OURSELVES.”
Jane needs to understand what is happening to her Mother in Law. Jane needs to realize that she is not the target when Sophie curses her under her breath, It’s the disease at work!! Very soon, Jane will no longer be confused with the other girl. The chances are that very soon Jane and even Jim will become strangers in Sophie’s eyes. The whole process is heart breaking. My advice to Jane is that this is not a time for an injured ego. It’s a time for compassion not only toward the afflicted widow but also it is a time to show a ton of love and affection for Jim who is suffering greatly. What should you do now? Remember you are a team. Close in your ranks. Love one another with an even greater love. Adversity is the anvil on which character is shaped. Your marriage can emerge from this terrible affliction, stronger than ever before. It takes a lot of term work and the rosy future you dreamed about can come true.