After three weeks holiday, I visited mum at her care home last Sunday. When I arrived, she was walking up and down a corridor, wearing a winter hat and clutching my wedding album. I already knew from care staff that she was on antibiotics for a chest infection, so I was reassured to see her on her feet. She was relieved and tearful to see me.

After a warm hug we chatted. Mum asked about my holiday and enquired after Jack, my husband, as she often does in her usual attentive way. She then explained in quick succession that: she isn’t good for anything, she wasn’t a good mother, and I’d be better off if she wasn’t around. This series of damning statements was prompted by her awareness of her loss of memory and sense of confusion about the world she now inhabits.

Normally, I have a strategy for gently presenting my mother with the evidence of her caring, thoughtful nature, of her great mothering skills, of the countless ways she has helped people out. My mother has always been a huge inspiration to me, and it is painful to hear the distorted image of herself, courtesy of dementia. In my rush to tell her she has been, and is a wonderful mother, I burst into tears. Somehow, I couldn’t say the words without a huge rush of strong emotions. I felt an urgency to let her know that my childhood memories of her are all good; that she selflessly protected and cared for me; that I felt and feel loved; and she is loved.

Tackling low self-esteem and sense of worthlessness

Normally, when I sense my mother’s low self-esteem, I casually drop into the conversation stories about how she brought strangers home who had nowhere to go for Christmas, how she became a volunteer counsellor to help young people get their lives back on track, and how she always supported me to do or be whatever I wanted. I particularly like to retell two stories that I recently learnt from good friends of hers.

Befriending and welcoming a newcomer to Hong Kong

When Jill Marsden first arrived in Hong Kong in 1974, she had never been outside Europe before. A new mum with a two-and-a-half-month-old baby, Jill was stuck in the hotel, while her husband Roger went out to work. The red-light district of Wanchai, where the hotel was situated, felt hostile and alien. The busy, narrow pavements couldn’t accommodate her British pram, and Jill felt homesick and isolated. One evening, distressed after an argument with Roger, Jill took a taxi to the nearest English-speaking church, St John’s Cathedral, where a service was about to start. My mum spotted Jill as a newcomer, welcomed her and took her under her wing. Mum arranged to take Jill and her baby, Natasha, out for the day to explore Hong Kong. Immediately, Jill felt a lot less lonely, and the two women became great friends.

Jill, daughter Jenny and June on holiday in Lydstep, Pembrokeshire
Jill (left), her youngest daughter Jenny (centre) and June on holiday in Lydstep, Pembrokeshire, in the 1990s.

The picture at the top of the page was taken on the occasion of Natasha’s christening, outside St Johns Cathedral. Jill is fourth from right, Roger third from right, June is second from left holding her son Tudor, and I am on the left of her.

Encouraging a woman who felt cast out by the church

June with friend Pat Gregory, at Pat's house, 2017
June (left) with friend Pat Gregory, at Pat’s house, 2017

Pat Gregory, brought up as a Christian and regular churchgoer, was reluctant to attend church services following her divorce in 1980. That was until she met my mother, as Pat writes in her memoir, “Prior to meeting June, I was too embarrassed to come regularly to church afraid of fingers being pointed at me through being divorced…It was June who persuaded me to attend on Wednesday mornings”. My mum put Pat’s name forward to be a member of the Parish Church Council. This initiated a whole new chapter in Pat’s life. Soon Pat became a central member of the local church taking up a range of duties from Cleaner to Reader.

June-and-Jill-august-2017
Jill (left) and June at a park close to mum’s care home in August 2017.

Both Jill and Pat shared these memories with mum and I in the last year, as if they realised they could help refurbish, however temporarily, mum’s dented self-image. Since I learned of them, I like retelling these stories to mum. She may not recall them, but they probably seem credible, and they echo a time when she was in control, taking care of and looking out for others. It’s a tricky subject, though. She visibly squirms in discomfort when I compliment her. I use stories because if I just tell her how kind and caring she is, it seems too general, and I feel it may come across as insincere.

Confront distorted images of low self-worth

Generally you shouldn’t contradict someone living with dementia, but allowing my mother to think she is worthless is not helpful either.

So, when mum is being self-critical I first show empathy for the way she is feeling. (On this occasion, by spontaneously bursting into tears! But that wasn’t deliberate) Then, when the moment is right I start chatting, reliving shared experiences, talking about her friends and family, until I can manage to slip in several concrete examples of what she has done for others. Eventually we move on, and the clouds clear a little.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Feelings of Low Self-Esteem

  1. This can be quite a dilemma – in your keenness not to contradict your mother, are you going to say ‘Yes, you’re right, you were useless’? Of course not! We need to think why it is that we want to cut out contradiction – it’s precisely so that we can avoid denting the person’s self-esteem. How about something like ‘I may not be an expert [i.e. like you are] but I think you’ve been a wonderful mother. It’s so good to see you again – I missed you when we were away…’
    I wonder whether she had been listening to your description of your holiday and wondering whether it might have been some kind of welcome relief from visiting her? She will be in great need of reassurance that she isn’t a burden, so perhaps another time, try emphasising – as soon as you arrive – how glad you are to see her again. If she doesn’t ask about the holiday, there’s no need to mention it, but if she does asks about it, there’s bound to be something that didn’t quite come up to her standards eg ‘Those people really don’t know how to make a decent cup of tea’ or ‘we had a rather strange pudding – not like your wonderful crumbles (or whatever)’ You’d think that we are doing the person a favour by telling them all about what we’ve been doing since we last saw them, but in dementia, that isn’t as always helpful as it might seem. It’s always important to leave her with a positive feeling, not just positive news (i.e. facts)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Shirley, Great points as usual. Yes, I could try saying something like that ‘I may not be an expert but ….’. I’m not sure she became distressed as a result of the chat about the holiday but I really like the idea of using proactive strategies to defer back to her wonderfulness as a mother – very clever. What sometimes seems to trigger the self-criticism is when she realises she can’t find the words to explain something to me. Have you got any ideas for this? I often try saying ‘I often can’t find my words these days, its so frustrating…. and there’s rush, take your time,…. and it will come back to you’, etc.

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