Letting Go of Broken Things

img_6043Looking back, I was such a bitch, when I first moved my mom into her care home.

I used to walk in, inquiring, but demanding, why weren’t her shoes clean, or why was her hair all matted down. Or where did the cute little pillow with embroidered flowers go? How did a photo frame break? Aggravation was my closet friend.

My mother was in transition, from her home, from family, from grief. I wanted everything to be perfect for her. And if not perfect, then at least right for her.

I too was in transition, planning for a move, plotting graduations of my kids and my own grief. I wanted everything to be perfect, right, so I wouldn’t have to think about the effort more so than required.

I often wondered if some of that attitude came from my mother’s own perfectionism. Her home was kept tidy, neat. Not a dust speck out of place. Not a dish that hadn’t been scrubbed. No casserole dish with an ounce of baked-on grease from the night before. No cookie sheet with burnt sugar remaining to tell the next user which cookie was once there.

In her dementia, Mom let go of that perfectionism. But I hadn’t. I still wanted everything to be perfect – for her.

The hardest lesson to learn when grieving a loss is we don’t / can’t think about “what that person would have wanted.” However many times I have used that as an excuse over the years, it’s just not viable reasoning when considering the life of a person with dementia.

The fact is, my mother would have wanted to stay in her own home. My mother would have wanted her hair to be expertly coiffed. To never leave her room without an application of lipstick. The fact is, what she would have wanted was far from easy in accomplishing and in opposition to meeting her needs.

Because she required more care, her needs outweighed her wants. And this lesson took me four years to learn.

I am astonished by my own casual attitude as of late, when I walk into her care home and notice her hair, sticking up like a rooster, as she used to say about some of her grandchildren. Mom gets a shower, sometimes two in one day, depending on her accidents. She readily seeks out sleep after a shower, and then voila, she has rooster hair.

And oh, how many times did she scold when we ate with our fingers and not utensils. In Mom’s first years at her care home, she was still utilizing forks and knives in their appropriate manner, spoon for mashed potatoes and a fork for chicken. But just the other day, Mom forked her whole-wheat roll slathered in butter and attempted to put the entire blob in her mouth. Outside of the risk of choking, which her mouth would not have been big enough anyhow, I could only watch with eyes open wide and mouth grinning. In her next bite, she fingered the scalloped potatoes. Maybe touching food is a way for her to still to connect.

Mom’s small room is another consideration. I don’t lock the room because I want her to find her way back home. But occasionally, her room looks like mine did as a teenager. Clothes strewn everywhere. A few items under the bed. Several broken items. One or two missing items and clean Depends scattered about.

I usually know the culprit. E. looks a little frightening to those who first meet her. Her long white hair, pulled tight in a ponytail does little to frame her stern face. Sometimes, E. yells at me with what I think is an Oklahoma or Arkansas twang, “Hey come back here, now. You need to listen more.”

I don’t understand E.’s attraction of Mom’s room. I keep very little in there for Mom. Except the occasional cookie. But E. could also be after the People magazines I stock for Mom.

I once found E. in Mom’s room, mumbling something about how messy the place was. But E. was the one who had been rooting around in Mom’s sock drawer, then tossing a few socks onto the floor. Pajamas were rolled up into drawers reserved for books and CDs. And E. was playing with the insert from Mom’s mastectomy bra, a bra Mom has long since stopped wearing. Her “girls” are free, except beneath a camisole or two.

Dried flower arrangements (Mom eats the real ones) have been ripped apart and doll babies dresses torn in two, because Mom didn’t like the frilly piece. Of course, now the doll is missing, and I have considered putting out an APB, but I also know the doll couldn’t have traveled far.

After four years, I removed the gilded silver framed wedding photo from my parents wedding day. Day after day, I stared at the photo and frame without considering its preservation. I don’t know why I felt the need to finally save the it, except it was the one item in Mom’s room I know she had selected. Mom chose how to frame her marriage.

My final lesson in letting go was the MOM photo frame, which my sister had purchased for Mom years ago. The frame held a photo of Mom with her four daughters and the Trevi fountain in Rome as backdrop. That trip was my mother’s first and only trip to Italy and the last of my father’s many.

I attempted to rescue the pink plastic frame over the past year or so. I used duck tape and gorilla glue but no animal, vegetable or mineral seemed to hold the frame together.

Finally, I brought the frame home where it rests, broken, in my office. Its a reminder to find a copy of that photo, frame it, probably enlarge it, so Mom can still see the faces of the girls she knows but can’t remember.

During my next visit, I will discover something else out of place, broken, crooked not quite right. But somehow that’s appropriate for what happens inside Mom’s care home and her mind.

I would rather keep Mom’s life in place than her hair. I would rather be the one holding on the to memories and not rely on a plastic pink frame to do the job.

  • This post previously published on personal blog.

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  1. As a non-medical caregiver through an agency in my post-retirement life I have come to accept that caring for the family is sometimes more challenging than taking care of the “client.” In a couple of cases I thought about contacting adult protective services but reminded myself that I am just an hourly employee and it would likely cost me my job.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I so see myself in this posting. I still have days at the nursing home when I know the staff wishes I was not there. I let a lot of things ride and then…….I don’t explode, but I certainly get my point across.

    • That’s sad..I hope they just want what’s best xxoo

  3. I’m going through that with my dad now. To see my dad in the hospital in a diaper and not knowing where he’s at, and being combative when it’s time to change his diaper, because he’s too weak to go to the bathroom, just breaks my heart. This dementia is disgusting, and yet I have been a professional caregiver for the past 4 years. But when it comes to your own family, it’s so different in ways.

    • Just a note: my brother called my dad’s diaper an adult garment. Calling it that in front of my dad made him feel better.

    • Judith, thank you for your support. The garment sounds so much better.

  4. Yes, you have to lower your standards. When they have dementia, and they’re setting bags of cat food on fire, and they take off their diapers to paint the walls with poop, and they refuse to be washed for days on end – hon, lower the standards. They aren’t ‘there’ any more and will never come back to fret over the right shade of lipstick, sticking-up hair, or a properly ironed 100% cotton frock from the Vermont Country Store.


  6. Thank you for sharing….I know the feeling of trying to having everything perfect for my mom and dad. So hard, but so real.

  7. Yes, I had a steep learning curve between the first nursing home and the second. They, somebody, should tell you what to expect, that will prepare you for what’s to come. Missing, broken, dirty, and other residents. Some health care workers are great, and some are not. I wish someone would have told me all this, before I learned it the hard way. My mom passed away at the end of April, and although I was sad, I was more relieved for her and me. Thanks for telling your story.


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