Lori La Bey has spent almost the whole of her adult life learning to live graciously with a condition that was not her own. For the majority of the three decades that her mother lived with dementia, Lori and her father acted as her primary care-partners, silently joining the more than 65 million Americans that provide daily assistance for their aged, chronically ill or disabled loved ones. In 2009, Lori founded Alzheimer’s Speaks, an organization whose efforts turn around the work of challenging the stigma of dementia and offering comfort and acceptance when crisis threatens.
It seems a unique cruelty that some are chosen to watch, and intimately attend to, the decline of their dearest relatives. Yet this is not how Lori tells her story. She joined us at Folks to discuss finding humor and peace in care-partnering: the work that chose her.
Tell me a bit about your earliest work as a caretaker.
I actually choose not to use the term caretaker. It’s evocative of a kind of lopsided relationship where only one person can touch the life of the other. My work was as a care-partner, because I was a daughter and a friend before all else. What I did was relational. There was give and take.
See, my mom had dementia for thirty years, more than half of my life. So I’ve spent a lot of time learning to live with this disease graciously. At first, our family really struggled knowing what was going on, as the doctors failed to diagnose her for ten years. They kept dismissing it as hormones, and yet when we finally reached out to a neurologist he said that she had the mental capacity of a three-year-old. My mom knew all along that something was wrong, and she would even joke that “these ain’t my girlfriend’s hormones.”
Wait, your mom knew?
Most people with dementia do. For my mom, there was a moment where she could no longer tell the time, but she wouldn’t tell people. When you talk to people with dementia, they always mention their work-a-rounds. For instance, my mom could tell the time by what was on TV. For the longest time, we couldn’t figure out why she would flip out if we changed the channel. Of course, those were the faces she was familiar with. New faces indicated a different hour of the day, and we just didn’t know it. She never told us about these kinds of things. They were her work-a-rounds, her attempts to be safe and to feel comfortable. As a family, it took us a long time to figure this out. We really didn’t even know to look for it.
After her diagnosis, did things improve?
Honestly, we just didn’t find much help. The only thing we knew about was the Alzheimer’s Association. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of support that was given to families and homes, and this is still true in some cases today. You could donate money and go on a walk, but that was about it. There weren’t product services or tools to help you actually live in the home independently. There was no sense that we were building a community. It was more of a bandage approach: just fix it and move on.
The focus of my work from day one has been to raise people’s voices so that they could find the services and community they needed to not feel so isolated. Care-partners need the freedom and empowerment to help remove fear from their work. Alzheimer’s doesn’t always look pretty. But you know what, our lives weren’t that pretty before Alzheimer’s hit. We all have our ups and downs, but when you enter a time of crisis you always think that things were perfect before. That’s what we do.
Why do we hold on to these false perceptions of our own lives?
Well, it’s easier for us to deal with. We don’t have to go into a new mode. We don’t like change. When someone gets diagnosed with dementia, we remember them at their pinnacle and we don’t want to give that up. We try to force them to be that person. They might have never been that person for years, but we go back in time.
I remember going through old pictures and finding an image of when I got married. I was in it with my mom and dad. When I saw it, I chuckled because I realized my dad’s dead, my mom’s got dementia, and I’m divorced. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to make my mom that person she was when I got married 30 years go. We all do this, but we must be more conscious of it. We have to stop “freeze-framing” people in time when the rest of the world continues to change.
It seems as though this would lead to tension in any relationship. What’s the effect of refusing to believe that your loved one is sick?
There’s a panic for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia that they make their loved ones anxious. This brings them to focus on care for others instead of themselves. They long for a sense of belonging, and they desire to restore things to what they once were. You put the pressure of getting things back to normal on a person that is really sick and it’s devastating.
So one of the things that most frustrates people with early onset Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairment is when people say to them, “Well, you look okay. You seem the same.” This infuriates them. It’s as though their friends and family really don’t want to believe that they have the symptoms to begin with because they look okay. They’re not broken they’re not bloody and they’re not wearing an oxygen tank. They look exactly the same, but they’re suffering.
Is there a kind of joy that comes with allowing your loved one, and yourself, to change?
My mom became the safest person I could ever go see. As the disease progressed, she lost her ego. She had no need to judge. No matter what was going on, I could just be with her and be who I was. I didn’t need to hide it anymore. I didn’t need to hold back my emotions and feelings. She allowed me to be who I was in any given moment. Whatever the emotion I could trust her and be my true self. I knew that she would still love me and still be there. It was something unexplainable. My mom was the safest place to be my authentic self. I didn’t have to meet expectations because she didn’t have any.
As the disease progressed, she lost her ego… No matter what was going on, I could just be with her and be who I was.
And others held on to an old vision of your mom?
One of my mom’s dear friends actually refused to visit her because it was too hard. So I met her for breakfast one morning and brought this DVD of my mom singing and dancing to some of her favorite music. I slid it across the table and this 76-year-old woman screamed out in the middle of a restaurant, “Oh my god, she looks horrible. Lori, I thought you were taking better care of her.” I burst out laughing.
I realized then that I didn’t see what she saw anymore. I didn’t see the Billy goat hair on her chin, I didn’t see the food splotch on her clothes, I didn’t see that her hair was messed up, I didn’t see any of that. I saw the glint in her eyes. I saw her dimples. I saw her huge smile, and I heard her giggle. But I looked at that picture and thanked that woman for pointing it out to me because I didn’t know I had changed on this journey. You do change. If you want to, you can find joy in these tiny moments that we overlook because we’re judging what it’s supposed to look like. If we can get past that, life becomes pretty darn precious.
Are there other specific memories following your mom’s diagnosis that you can share?
There was an afternoon when my mom was asleep at the nursing home. She had just been moved to the lowest functioning unit, and I didn’t want her there. The truth, though, was that she needed it for her own safety. When I entered the room, there were two beds separated by a faint curtain and my mom’s was closest to the window. Her roommate was gone and as I walked into the room I could see my mom on the bed through this curtain. She had her pants pulled down to her belly button, her shirt tucked under her boobs, and she was only 5’2 but weighed 300 pounds. Her whole belly was showing. So I walked in and I just kind of chuckled because she reminded me of Garfield basking by the window. I said, “Oh Mom, do I have to pull out that bikini for you?” Out of a dead sleep my mom woke up, looked me square in the eyes, and with a big smile on her face said, “Lori, I don’t think I should be wearing a bikini.” Then she went back to sleep.
What did you do?
I sat on that bed and bawled like a baby. My mom hadn’t said my name in three years, and I didn’t know if she still knew it. At that point, I didn’t ask anymore because I had a 50 percent chance she wouldn’t remember and this would wreck her day and mine. But that was just a pure moment of joy. She still knew who I was. We still had a relationship.
One of the things I tell people is that we’ll only find what we’re looking for, and I have found over the years that we only remember three things: what saddens us, what causes us fear, and what brings us joy. What saddens us is usually what we’ve lost. What causes us fear is projecting into the future and the unknown. Where there is joy is in the moment. If we’re living in the past or projecting into the future, we’re missing the moment of joy before us. It’s all about being present.
This seems to require an unbelievable selflessness. How do you move beyond self-pity?
Well, we all think we’re being person-centered when we have a long list of things we’re doing for someone else. When I ask other care-partners what they need to focus on, people usually rattle off a list and we simply assume that they’re being person-centered.
I’m sorry, could you clarify what that term means?
Person-centered is an over-used word. To most in the industry, it’s caring in a focused manner where the needs of our loved one comes first. The trouble is that our emotional instincts put our needs ahead of theirs.
Where there is joy is in the moment.
Isn’t that a pretty normal response?
Yes, but until we remove it we can’t really love them. In response, I began to ask these questions, “Are they safe, happy, and pain free?” For care-partners, the need to feel like we are doing something, making a difference, allows us to avoid our true feelings, which typically range from fear to sadness to shame to frustration to resentment. These are feelings that say, if we’re honest, this isn’t how I imagined my life. In order to shift to being person-centered, I believe we have to focus less on our lists and more on our relationship with the person.
What do people not realize about being a care-partner?
Interestingly, people don’t realize they are a care-partner. They think of themselves as a spouse, daughter, son, or a friend. We’ve set up a society where acting as a care-partner is a negative thing. Who do you know that says, “Hey, sign me up for that one!” Unless their trying to have a child, that’s one of the only times people consciously ask to be care-partners. We look down on it because it’s a state of crisis instead a state of comfort.
When you speak to people, what do you try to leave them with? How do you finish these conversations?
Well, one of the things I emphasize is teaching people self-care. Society has told us that this is our job, and it’s these silent expectations that cause people to lose their identity. This happened to me. For me, I had girlfriends that would invite me to coffee and I would say I didn’t have time. One day I said I’d go, and I’ll never forget what I said because it was so cocky and inappropriate. I said, “Okay, I’ll give you ten minutes.” It was like I was the queen or something. I went there to get them off my back. We laughed and cried for two hours. I didn’t know how empty I was until I allowed myself to be filled. When you’re on this path, you don’t even know that you’re drained.
Again, we have to shift from crisis to comfort in caregiving. The only way we’re going to really be able to do that is by having authentic conversations and let people know what our real needs are. This work just knocks on your door and you can’t expect it. The trouble is that we still don’t know what dementia is really like. We’re peering through the window and guessing, so we need to continue to have conversations and start with those living the story: professionals, care-partners, and those diagnosed.