The Comedian with Aphasia

Watching my mother slowly come apart has been a strange experience. First it was her speech. In the early stages, she was hesitant, sometimes using the wrong word to express something. She might answer a question with a yes or no, only to correct herself moments later with the right answer. Over time, her phrases became simpler and more direct and much less frequent. She still speaks, but the expectation is that she will eventually be mute.

Her emotional expressions have also been dulled by dementia. For instance, she doesn’t seem to express pain very often and you have to pay close attention to notice when she is upset or angry or happy. Eventually that too will go.

One thing that remains is her sense of humor. She loves to laugh, both at the things we do and at herself.

In between the TV room and the bathroom is the thermostat. Most times when we pass it, her hand will dart up and push the heat up to 85 degrees. I will move the little lever back down and she will giggle as if to say, “No use trying to get me to stop doing that, I’m being mischievous and I like it.”

The same used to be true for the dish washer, every time we put a single dish inside, every time we even passed it, she would press the start button and turn it on. Before we were with her 24/7, she must have run the dishwasher 5 or 6 times a day. For her a load of laundry could be a single towel or washcloth.

We learned quickly that it was impossible to reason with her impulsive behavior. The best you could do was come up with strategies to work around her impulses. Otherwise it would lead to frustration for everyone. For instance, when we passed the dishwasher, instead of telling mom, “Don’t press the start button”, I would simply cover it up. She would try to press the button anyway. She would reach for the button, see my hand covering it, then look up at me knowing it wasn’t time to press it, smile and giggle. It was as if she understood how irrational these impulses were, but couldn’t stop them and found them terribly funny.

The occupational therapist recommended that we keep her as active as possible. We should have her do as much housework as she is willing to do. So just now I pulled some towels out of the dryer and brought them in to her to fold. I left them with her and with B, our morning helper. I left the room for a few minutes. When I came back to see Mom’s progress, several of the larger towels were haphazardly piled in a stack. B pointed out the pile and I looked at Mom. Instead of being frustrated with her inability to fold towels, she just giggled and kept folding, or rather flipping around, the one she was working on.

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