There are labels for mom’s condition: senility, Alzheimer’s, dementia. There are other labels, too, more often whispered in days past: she’s off her rocker, a few bricks shy, lights on but nobody home. They all describe one whose physical existence has outlasted mental faculties.

Mom’s frailty came on gradually over the past decade or more. Five of those years, she lived with me and functioned quite well, considering her advanced age. With a Medic-Alert button around her neck, I could leave her alone during the day, though not too many days in a row. She had a habit of “forgetting” to eat, her lifelong practice to counteract weight gain. At 80-something, her fragile frame carried no extra pounds. However, old habits die hard—habits like self-control, thriftiness, and staying busy.

During her prime Mom was such a busy bee. A homemaker, she did all the things that went with raising four kids and dozens of foster kids. She cleaned, gardened, baked, canned, knitted, and sewed. She wrote a community column for the local paper and taught art classes to the neighborhood kids. She crafted pottery and even composed music. She was full of energy and always on the go. Most times, she was cheerful, though she had her angry times, too. Whatever she was feeling, it was out there in the open and over quickly. No time for suffering in silence; that wasted energy when there were things to be done.

I wish I could tap into some of that energy now. It’s been over two months since moving Mom to the home, and it’s a big, thankless chore clearing out her old room. A Depression-era survivor, Mom certainly knew how to hang on to things. She gripped her possessions just as tightly as her fear of lack gripped her. Some things, like her beautiful pottery and artwork, are clearly treasures. Intermingled is a jumble of worthless items that I doubt even she cared about, kept by default, probably to avoid this kind of painstaking sorting. I begin organizing the mountain of stuff into three parts: discard, give away, and keep.

Of all the hats Mom wore, “writer” was primary. From her hundreds of pages of research notes she banged out numerous articles on her ancient manual typewriter. Some were published in newspapers. Some she “published” (photocopied) herself, and others are still in their original, handwritten form. Most are assembled into notebooks organized by subject matter. All are covered in dust.

Somewhat guiltily, I read through her writings, feeling as if I’m invading her privacy. My guilty feelings mount along with the discard pile, which contains her prized creations of a lifetime. As I spend hours sorting and breathing the dust from days gone by, however, my chore has an unexpected payoff—I’m gaining a new perspective of my mom as a woman, not just my mother, but as a person in her own right.

I’m entertained by Mom’s stories of cute things kids and grandkids did. I find her angry notes of venting after arguments with Dad. Having cared for her own aged mother for seven years, Mom wrote about the challenges of caring for the elderly. I can certainly relate to that. As I read on, I’m hit squarely between the eyes by déjà vu. Mom had just put her own mother into a nursing home—the same facility, in fact, where I’ve just moved her. Mom’s entry is dated more than 20 years ago:

It’s been a month now since putting Mother in the nursing home. All her clothes still hang in the closet. I’d really like to use her room, but I feel guilty about getting rid of her things, which she valued so much. What if I give them all to the Goodwill and then her mind returns, will she be mad at me?

As further déjà vu, I note that I was pregnant with my daughter when Mom wrote that entry, and as I write this, my daughter is pregnant with my granddaughter. The generational torch is being passed.

I’ve told Mom that she will be a great grandmother twice over, as my brother is also expecting a grandchild soon. Mom grasps this, and soon forgets; I have to repeat the news the next time I see her. She lives in the Alzheimer’s/Dementia unit at the home. Like other residents there, Mom has slipped into second childhood. She recounts events from 80 years ago as if they are going on this minute. Her eyes take on a misty, faraway gaze, and her voice becomes girlish. Sometimes she wanders the halls at night, like a toddler in search of her parents’ bed.

Some of residents at the home are stuck on an emotion or retell a story repeatedly. On the other hand, Mom appears to be in the process of becoming “unstuck.” She always had a mental grasp on everything, including uncomfortable feelings. This echoed her generation’s mind-set: buck up and do your duty; no time for whining or self-pity. Staying in one’s head avoids descent into risky emotional territory. Mom is likely way behind in feeling her feelings. The backlog has caught up to her now, and there are times when she laughs and weeps hysterically. She’s no longer in control. And yet she is being freed from the stiff corset of willpower and self-discipline in which she lived most of her life. She’s returning to a pure, childlike state that is real and in the moment. A child yells when angry, cries when sad, and laughs uncontrollably, without apology or restraint. Mom may appear to be a confused or crazy old lady. But if you look just beyond her softly lined face and into her enigmatic eyes, you will see a soul who is processing a lifetime of experiences.

In watching Mom’s process I’ve been asking myself some questions that I pass on to those seeking to evaluate and improve their lives:

What is my life’s purpose, and am I fulfilling it?
What do I value most? Am I making sure that’s where I invest my time and energies?
Do I hold in my life the possessions, people, and qualities that really matter to me?
What do I need to let go of? Am I keeping things (or attitudes, beliefs, old methods, etc.) by default—not having questioned whether they still serve me?
Am I growing? What can I learn? What do I need to unlearn?
What am I contributing? Do I give because I want to, or out of duty?
How do I feel about who I am and what I’ve done over the course of my life?

All these things, tangible and intangible, collectively make up the meaning of one’s life and how well it is lived.
I treasure the gifts my mother passed to me, including honesty, a strong work ethic, and the joy of achievement. I have gained from her deficits as well; I see the value in taking the time to feel and just be. I’m also doing my best to let go of fears and other needless things that clutter my house and soul. I wonder what my daughter will learn when, one day, she sifts through the treasures and ponderings of my lifetime.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit

Author's Bio: 

Leah Light is a published author, wedding minister, and intuitive counselor. She has entertained by giving readings since childhood. Over the years she has further developed her gifts to help people understand and heal themselves. Those abilities were tested personally following the sudden death of her husband of 19 years in 1998. Recovery came, in part, through writing of her experiences and spawning two inspirational books, We Are Becoming: Insights & Impressions of a Psychic and Picking Up the Pieces: Becoming a Greater Whole. For more information about Leah Light, please visit her on the Web at