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In episode 6 of season 18 of The Golden Girls, aptly titled “Older and Wiser”, well meaning daughter Dorothy concocts a plan to trick her mother Sophia into believing that Sophia is the new activities director at a senior center, when in actuality Sophia is there just so someone is keeping an eye on her during the day while Dorothy works.
Of course it doesn’t go according to plan, and Sophia discovers the lie.
I saw this episode a few nights ago and it got me thinking about how tightly we can try to control situations, especially if our brain is projecting a story about the possibility of harm coming to someone we love. The human brain is a master at trying to predict the future. Its job is to make sense of things, even things that haven’t happened yet.
Why we try to control things
When you have a loved one with dementia, there are so many unknown variables yet to be experienced. This makes a brain very uncomfortable, and you feel that in your body. Due to this discomfort, it can be very easy to get so anxious about future possibilities that you try to start controlling every little thing you can.
This is the brain trying it’s best to engineer a future you recognize. The brain is pretty darn good at this. You likely already know what time you’ll wake up tomorrow, how you’ll get out of bed and the first thing you’ll do (whether it’s drink water or use the bathroom or get in the shower). If you work you know exactly how you’ll get there, what to do when you get there, how to follow the processes set in place.
This is comfortable for your brain, because it’s already projected what your future will be like tomorrow. But when you have a loved one with dementia, prediction goes out the window, and this can freak a human brain out.
Fear drives control
The driving force behind trying to control everything is fear. You may intellectually be able to explain why you need to control a situation the way you do, but notice how your explanation is based on future possibilities of bad things happening.
When you’re functioning through fear you get tunnel vision. Your brain just wants to predict and predict, control and control. And when this cycle takes over, the wants of your loved one can be overshadowed by your need to try and control anything and everything.
At the end of the Golden Girls episode, Sophia tells Dorothy that she understands why Dorothy felt the need to control the situation, but it made Sophia feel shut out of her own life. She says she appreciated that Dorothy wanted to make safe choices for her mother, but that she wanted to be involved in those choices too. She asked that they be in it together.
Of course, with dementia, there comes a point where a person can no longer make a safe decision for them-self.
When I found out my mom has Huntington’s disease, I started to try and control things.
She is still fully capable of making most of her decisions. But I had the notion in my head that I knew better. And you know what? That didn’t feel good. On one level I felt like I was being the responsible daughter for getting on her about exercise and diet.
But I now understand why it didn’t feel good; because I was judging her. That was creating separation, rather than allowing me to just connect to her in love, which is what I really wanted all along.
I was also trying to control when she dies, which just isn’t possible. Sure, there may be a few things to be done here and there, but often with an older loved one, that desperation to control is rooted in the fear of loss. And that’s one thing we can’t control, no matter how hard we try.
So, why not be in it together? Really listen to your loved one. Make efforts to delight them. Respect their needs as they arise.
And do the same for yourself. If you’re in it together, that means all of it.
Work with me
If you just can’t see how you can let go of fear and control and get back to a connected relationship with your loved one with dementia, I can help. Through my coaching techniques I can help you see the thoughts creating all the fear, and guide you to a new way of thinking that will create a space for connection and love.