In Praise of the Inefficient Care of Persons

Alzheimer's had already taken so much, so why should I also take away my mother's dignity?

Last weekend I travelled to New Hampshire to visit my parents, ostensibly to help my father and sister take care of my mother, who suffers (and that’s the right word) from Alzheimer’s. I didn’t manage to be much help, but I came back with something to ponder.

My mother, who used to have a way with words like few people you’ve ever met, can hardly utter a coherent sentence these days. Two exceptions from this weekend: my sister and daughter and I were making necklaces out of Indian corn, and I reminded my mother that it was she who had taught me how to do that.

“In fact,” I added, “you taught me pretty much everything I know.”

“Well, that would be a little extreme,” she replied with perfect lucidity.

The second exception happened later, when she kept talking about lying down on the couch and then immediately heading away from it. I tried to steer her toward the living room, but when we got there, she had some trouble maneuvering her head around to where the pillow was. I wanted to help and was ineffectually trying to find the right balance between coaxing and nudging her head in the right direction when she objected mildly, but with perfect clarity, “Listen, honey, take it easy, okay?” I had the sense that she was not just expressing annoyance with the head-nudging but was trying to get me to understand something about how to treat people.

I’ve been a mother myself for a good quarter century, so I’m used to trying to help people who can’t express what they want. Or who don’t want what they should. Or who don’t understand what they truly want. I can tell by a newborn’s cry whether he’s hungry or suffering from belly bubbles, even if he doesn’t know which it is himself. I can determine when it’s time to abandon tact and embrace coercion to save a two-year-old from the hard candy that she thinks would make her happy and I know would block her windpipe.

I’m familiar with (though I still haven’t mastered) the art of knowing when to let your teenager get himself into something that’s likely to end badly, and when to put your foot down. I knew all about teachable moments (and have been known to get a little carried away with them).

But this was different. In all of those cases I’d be trying to show respect and love for people who aren’t competent to handle things for themselves. It’s clear to me that they merit such treatment simply because they’re human persons, and especially entrusted to me. But there’s also an element of pragmatism and concern for efficiency. When you’re making judgments for a newborn, toddler or teenager, you have in mind that someday they’ll be making them for themselves, and you’re training them for that moment. You’re looking to equip them to take on the responsibility themselves — either by stepping in to prevent a fatality, so they can even live to see an age of greater competence, or by letting them experience the natural consequence of their mistakes.

You’re treating them with suitable respect, in accord with their dignity, but also because you figure it will work better that way, for them and for you.

This is different, though. There’s no expectation that my mother will be shouldering the task of judging or fending for herself again. All of us who are trying to give her the help she now needs without disregarding her dignity are doing it just because she is who she is. No present or future abilities at all have anything to do with her being deemed worthy of anything.

Efficiency would dictate a different approach: more coercion, less explanation, less attention to anybody as a person.

But efficiency is overrated.


Devra Torres is a freelance writer, editor, translator and home-schooling mother of eight. This article was first published on The Personalist Project and is reprinted here with kind permission.