Iyyar: Relinquishing Control

Iyyar: Relinquishing Control

Lisa Zbar

During this shmita year of the Jewish world, my mother, brothers, and I are in our first shmita year of Mom’s life with Alzheimer’s disease. Inspired by shmita, I’ve recognized my intermittent desire to regulate her care. It’s not easy, or possible, to do living 1,200 miles away, without aggravating my brothers and causing disarray among five caregivers.

I visit every couple of months, staying with Mom and the caregivers in the house where I grew up in Hollywood, Florida. At first, I was shocked by the rapid changes and she was stricken with grief upon the realization that she was losing her mind.

Now, a few more years into the disease, she still walks and feeds herself, occasionally notices a sweet breeze and beautiful clouds, lights up when she sees her children, enjoys ice cream and thin-crusted pizza, and speaks disjointed English—but not gibberish.

And, a lot is worse.

I visited in late February and it was awful. Despite so much behavior being intact, some days are dreadful. She shakes and cries and says over and over that she wants to go home. She needs help with everything and being touched often makes her lash out and yell—at me and everyone else.

When I got home from that visit, I was overwhelmed, which led to a brainstorm: I’ll develop a problem-solving system to work with the caregivers to devise strategies, assess whether the strategies are working, and then tweak the plan. We’ll do this in a conference call every month. At last! A path to solutions!

Then I noticed that I was wrapping tightly around this idea, as if a boa constrictor of the soul was squeezing me. A different self spoke up: “You live far away. You can’t do this without making everyone miserable. Loosen that grip.” I took a breath and released my mother and myself.

But what does it mean to release, to relinquish control? It can’t be all or nothing.  

I got back from another visit just a few days ago. Everything is the same: misery and momentary delight, and a lot of flatness in between. I’m different, though. I realize that relinquishing control does not mean that I give up any attempt to affect changes in Mother’s situation. Instead, it means that I reflect on my observations, examine them, think through some options, talk to my brothers and the caregivers, and make the best choices I can as to what to do.

It means asking for help by reaching out to her brilliant and compassionate geriatric psychiatrist. It means that I float along with Mom instead of pressing her to explain what she’s saying. If I have an idea, I bring it up to a caregiver and let it go. I recognize that very little must be decided in that moment, which dials down my intensity and probably makes me easier to be around. I get humble, too, not so fast to think that I have the best approaches. What is best, anyway, in a situation that is so impossibly far from ideal?

When I come up with yet another plan, shmita offers a parallel way to think about control, about not caving into the disease of Alzheimer’s and also stepping back when I start to contract. Perhaps this year is preparing me for what will become even more intractable.