QUESTION: What is your take on dementia?

For the past few months, I have been dealing with a parent who seems to be exhibiting signs of early dementia. I hate the labeling, especially because I come from a healing background and look at what is around the person instead of just dooming them to hell. I lost a sibling, and since then my parents have seriously divided. They were never happy together and they enabled my sibling for years. BUT! That was the old school way of doing things: "Don’t tell anyone, everything is okay, it's nobody's business, why do I have to burden someone with my problems?"

My mother is blaming my other sibling of stealing. They have not spoken in five months. I went to an Alzheimer's Foundation in the city to learn more, and well, this seems to be an early sign. She had a brain scan last year and it came back clean. Her primary care doctor tested her on her memory; he said she’s fine. She won’t go to a psychiatrist, my dad won’t get help, and she has been known to hide her belongings so much that she can not even find them! The death of my sibling seriously hurt both of my parents that are well into their 70s now. Hoarding has bared its ugly face (it's not like what you see on TV), everyone is fighting, and I dug through all of her belongings for hours to find these “stolen items” and no luck! I’m 100% positive my sibling did not steal these items because none of us have seen them for years.

I went out with my mother for the whole day last week. She remembered everything, she kept up with me, she knew all of the directions to where we needed to go, and she spoke to everyone in the stores. I swear it almost feels like she is waking up and wants her independence back. The marriage should have ended years ago, and now it feels like a separation is on the forefront. I have everyone saying it's dementia, I am just not sure, and these problems are causing major issues in my family, it's a bit of a mess.

ANSWER: Dementia is a complex and poorly understood disorder. It has a varied etiology ranging from genetic predisposition, poor diet (sugar being a wicked cofactor), to environmental issues. Time will tell whether the issues your mother is having are early signs of dementia or not. The loss of a child is one of the most brutal things a person can experience. The effects of the shock and grief are an explosion in the psyche. So that issue can not be separated from her behavior. What is going on will be revealed, whether you and her doctor are correct or the other people who say otherwise.

But the issue here is not only the reasons for your mother’s behavior. The elephant in the room here is a dysfunctional family structure. One where you are helpless changing. You can only be of assistance by healing yourself. Your parents are functioning dysfunctionally. Unhappiness is as strong a bond as love. Negative pleasure in relationships can and do keep people glued together for a lifetime. That is about as “old school” as it gets. The “enabling of a sibling” is how parents displace their own pain and anxiety onto a child. It’s a losing proposition for all involved, but especially the child who carries the parent’s pain and helplessness. That twisted form of love is also a strong bond. The loss of an enabled member of a family spins the whole structure out of control. That displaced pain will need to go to a new place unless the people involved are waking up and healing the underlying issues. Drama is a displacement, not only of the pain of the loss, but also an attempt to build a new structure to hold the unconscious pain.

What is your historical role in the family structure? Are you the savior? Is that what was assigned to you? To get in there and figure things out? To be the golden child that is the healer and peacekeeper? Only you can answer these not so pleasant questions. Take a step back and get a clear understanding of the lay of the land. When we are deeply steeped in a system, it is hard to see things clearly. Step back emotionally, and observe. Some expert help can be immensely helpful to you now - to see clearly.

Short of a situation where you need to be intervening legally to have her committed to care, you are helpless. Painful business, I know. Dismantle your piece in enabling this painful dance. Do what is needed compassionately, but avoid being pulled into the drama. Easier said than done in any family structure. This is the utmost compassionate act.