The Shriver Report – How My Mother-in-Law’s Dementia Inspires Me

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How My Mother-in-Law’s Dementia Inspires Me
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My mother-in-law was born and raised on a cattle ranch in the middle of Montana. She rode horses bareback, had friends on the neighboring Native American reservation and used an outhouse, just like you see in old western movies. At the tender age of 3, she lost her mother and her father sent her to live in an orphanage with her sister. Her brother, at the age of 17, ran away and joined the service, fighting for the Allies in WWII.

Despite the hardships, she had a successful career in the airline industry (when they wore skirts, pantyhose and high-heels behind the ticket counter) and then married – raising two very successful children. Her husband, died much too early of heart disease in his 50’s and she was a single parent for many years.

One of her children is my husband and for the past few years, we have been witness to her slow and steady memory-loss. She is 86 years old and resides in an assisted-living community here in Seattle.

It has been heart-breaking to see a once healthy, steady, proud, sturdy Montana, ranch-raised woman fall victim to dementia.

I know, from being an avid reader of Maria’s blog, that I am not alone in this journey. Maria has written some incredible pieces about her father and the effect Alzheimer’s has had on her life. Many of you know this story and can recite it chapter and verse. It is agonizing, painful and simply unfair.

Recently, I have decided to see this tragic turn in our family in a new light.

There is some shame for me in admitting that my mother-in-law’s suffering has inspired me. As Oprah says, here’s what I know for sure:

I will always move: My mother-in-law postponed knee replacement, never following through on the doctor’s strong recommendations. As a result, moving for her was terribly painful and difficult. She was often sedentary and as a result, she stayed inside her apartment and watched a great deal of TV. Her doctor often told her that exercise would help stave off the progression of her dementia. Sadly, she did not follow her doctor’s guidance and the decline continued, despite our best intentions and efforts.

So much of the research around Alzheimer’s and dementia clearly indicates that exercise is key to slowing the early stages of this terrible disease. A Cardiff University Medical School study by Professor Peter Elwood, found “…Healthy behavior was far more beneficial than any medical treatment or preventative procedure. And that the five factors that were integral to helping avoid disease were regular exercise, not smoking, low bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake.”

“People in the study who followed four of these had a 60% decline in dementia and cognitive decline rates, with exercise named as the strongest mitigating factor.”

Since my own family has a history of Alzheimer’s and dementia, I am religious about walking, bootcamp (I wrote an article, published on this site about this effort) and staying active. I often think of my Aunt Shushie and my grandparents when that kettle bell seems too heavy to lift. They too suffered from memory-loss and I lift in their honor (although I may swear a bit as well).

Surround Myself with Friends: The same Cardiff University study, and others around the world, drive home that social interaction is also key and critical in fighting the advancement of dementia.

This is an easy Must-Do for me. Like so many of you, I adore my friends and there are not enough days in the week to see everyone I love. But, I plan on trying and keeping these social interactions going and going and going. Who knows, I may even take up mah-jongg!

I Will Not Postpone: As I mentioned, my mother-in-law put off knee-replacement surgery (it was all that horseback riding) that could have impacted her quality of life. At 86 and suffering from dementia, she is no longer an ideal candidate – as rehabilitation would be challenging.

I have suffered from knee injury myself, as a result of a car accident. While I still exercise and ignore some of the achiness, I will not postpone surgery if it means limiting my movement in the future. Putting off impactful procedures may mean a greater risk of challenges down the line.

Clear the Clutter: About a week ago, we spent hours and hours moving my mother-in-law from a one-bedroom apartment to a studio apartment in her retirement community. You know the story: we need to preserve as much of her savings as possible in the event she needs much more costly care.

As I was packing her up, she said sadly, “It’s hard to see my life boxed up and taken away.” This was a tear-inducing moment for me and it has inspired me to take a look around my own home and ask “what do I really treasure here?” I clearly see opportunity to clean out what has little meaning and surround myself with things that matter so that I don’t have to watch my own children “box up my life”.

Write: My mother-in-law had a very interesting life. Over the years, she shared stories of joy, sadness, unusual family tales (usually centered around life on the ranch) and those of her children’s successes. None of it is anywhere but in the memories of those close to her. Her dreams, stories and antidotes will gently leave this world as she does – as she wrote none of it for us to recall.

While I am not an accomplished writer, I do want to put memories to paper so that my children know their mother’s stories – good and bad. What a gift to know where you came from and how you found yourself where you are today.

Create a Legacy: My mother-in-law has two very accomplished children – a son and a daughter. These two people are her true legacy and she has every reason to be proud of them. I too have two children – two daughters (18 and 21). I am very proud of them as well. But, I am also proud of my non-profit work, my fledgling small business (I am a job search coach) and influencing changes in my community to leave another type of legacy. I have committed myself to smiling more, being kind, hoping to “pay it forward” so that when that day comes, when I am unaware of who I am and who I was, that a small spirit of life stays behind.

Perhaps “inspiring” is the wrong word, but I am bereft of the right word to describe the impact that my mother-in-law’s memory loss has had on me. Please share with me what you have learned through your journey. I’ll be next to you and will put out my hand to grasp yours in this challenging time of our lives. You will “inspire” me.


Lora Poepping is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Lora Poepping began her 13 year career with Microsoft as an MBA-college recruiter and after years of advising hundreds of people on how to most effectively execute their job search, Lora took her passion for people to the next level and founded plum.
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