I am posting this very personal painting because I know that there are so very many people trying to come to terms with losing a parent to dementia. You are not alone.
While your loved one is alive, you are hesitant to talk to anyone about it. It’s embarrassing to your parent/loved one, and you don’t want to be a whiner. You also feel guilt for the feelings of being shackled to this person. Life seems to be passing you by. I repeat, you are not alone.
It has been two years now, since my mother’s passing in 2012. Having quickly removed her personal belongings from the nursing home, I dispersed them among my sister, myself and some local charities. The rest I boxed up after the funeral and settling her financial affairs.
Feelings were still too raw, and I put those last boxes and files aside while I went on with my life.
But recently, while cleaning out some files in my studio, I came upon a reminder of her suffering – little notes that she wrote while in her confusing world of dementia. She obviously used things and moved things around in her own apartment, and because she was forgetting so much, her mind made up stories about other people intruding into her sanctuary. Reason decreases, and imagination increases dramatically, especially where paranoia takes root.
She told me about the people who insinuated themselves into her home to eat her food, steal small items and move things around – even rearranging her drawers, cupboards and purse. At the worst stages, she imagined that these folks had moved into the apartment above her, coming down to her kitchen for breakfast.
At times, “those people” brought their children along with them, allowing the children to scratch her piano bench, pick off the leaves of her floral arrangements, and cut the edges of doilies. Mom claimed to have even seen these children in her home. She also insisted that a man used a rope and harness to climb her balcony at night, sit in her livingroom and listen to her radio.
The notes were addressed to these “visitors”, calling them “destroyer”, “thieves” and she told them she couldn’t afford to feed them, and that they should “get a job!”
I had collected about a dozen of these notes when emptying her apartment for the move to the care home. I knew that I needed to do something with these notes. Throwing them away seemed to not acknowledge her distress, so I decided to work them into a painting about dementia, so I could put myself into her world and make an attempt to understand what she had felt.
I found a photo that I had taken of her in her favourite fish & chip restaurant, shortly before her passing, and sketched the face on the canvas in paint. I usually begin a painting with primary colours, mix them and add others as I go along.
My mother lived in fear. What is it like living in constant fear? Where one’s imagination goes wild, and everyone is “looking at you” and judging you? Everyone is thinking you are crazy.
My hands shook and I started to weep as I tore the edges from all of these notes and made them into smaller pieces to add to the painting.
Using regular gel medium, I added these notes to the canvas. I “helped” it dry faster with a hair dryer.
While living with the experience of helping and caring for my Mom, I had also been widowed. I was dealing with desperate feelings of my own, and my mother was in her helpless little world, immersed in neediness and unable to help me. This brought on depression and guilt for wanting her to console me.
Fortunately, at the time I was working in the office of our church, where I received much prayer and counselling support. To wade through my grief and loss, I accepted help from a loving network of family and friends.
With these paintings, I am studying the face of Mom, seeing every wrinkle and reflection as an insight into what she was feeling at the time. I missed being able to fully understand this as I was living the experience. Every stroke of the brush seems to ease, to release – something.
I can never hope to really understand her anxiety and desperation, but somehow it feels good to make use of those pesky little notes that had been taking up space in my files. They are now filed away permanently – in a place of reminder that we need to show a bit more patience and love to those living in the prison of their anxieties.
As each phase of the painting was created, I posted the progress on my personal Facebook page. It was done on impulse, and opened myself up to a risk, but I’m glad that I did it. Several people commented with encouragement and appreciation on the process.
On the very first introductory post, my artist-friend June commented about my intent to create the painting. She said, “Go deep and it will paint itself.”
I did and it did.
This painting will be on view at Art Expo in Winnipeg, Oct. 24-26 at Assiniboia Downs.