Voting with Mom

Four years ago, Mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s for a year, but she was still living in her apartment, still driving to the grocery store and to the occasional errand, and she still paid attention to politics. At least a little bit. She still took the daily paper and she watched broadcast television news, never having had cable. She wanted to vote in our gubernatorial election, and she wanted to vote for the Democratic candidate for governor. She didn’t know anything else about the election. But casting that vote mattered to her.

So I took her to the polls with me. There was a short line. I voted first, and then Mom took her place at a booth. And she was completely frozen. She didn’t know the first thing about how to operate the electronic machine. I walked toward her to help her, and a startled poll worker intervened, stunned that I was going to get involved in Mom’s private voting activity. “I want to vote for governor, and that’s all,” Mom said. The poll worker helped her find the candidate’s name. She helped her skip the rest of the ballot, and helped Mom finalize her vote. Mom was pleased. I tried to whisper that Mom had Alzheimer’s. But it didn’t really matter. The voting had taken place.

That was the last time Mom voted. Ironically, her assisted living facility functioned as a polling place. But by the time she had moved in there, she had lost interest in politics for the most part. A lifelong Democrat, she did retain some affection for Hillary Clinton. She never really seemed to understand the appeal of Barack Obama. I like to think that had her mind been clear, she would have been proud that our country elected its first black president in her lifetime.

Every time I go to vote, and I always vote, I have to sign the registration book so my current signature matches the signature on file. And every time I do that, I see Mom’s name right above mine. Bonnie Caldwell. She lived in my precinct, in an apartment around the corner, before she entered institutions. And her address has never been changed officially for those voting books. Because I would have to do that, and I haven’t done it. So she is still registered. So I think of her every time I vote. And I think about how her political leanings influenced mine. And that I am proud of my political views, and I’m glad I cast the same kinds of votes that she would if she still could.


14 comments so far

  1. Andrea Carlisle on

    A very moving story. Through you, her values live on regardless of her mental condition at the moment. Thank you.

  2. Jeff on

    She would definitely be proud of Obama as first black president and his attempts at social equity. I’m personally so disheartened by the results of this election. It seems like this country is becoming its own version of religious extremists, the kind of terrorists we’re so worried about in other countries. Oy!!

  3. momsbrain on

    Thank you, Andrea. I did learn a lot from her over the years.

    Jeff, I know, it was a distressing election. Mom’s candidate is out. Ohio has gone all Republican after just four years of Dems. Though our default setting has been Republican as a state anyhow, so it is not a huge surprise. I’m glad Mom is all set with Medicaid…

  4. Laura on

    Don’t ever remove her signature. This brought tears to my eyes!

  5. Jennifer Jayhawk on

    Great post!!! Once again I have to say I love your writing.

    Parents certainly have an effect on their children’s political views among other things. I have found it interesting with my two boys seeing how they voted in their teens (18) and how they are now voting in their 20’s. It is quite fascinating.

  6. patrick on

    i don’t know if i’ve ever commented, because we usually just talk about all of this.

    but this, like so much else you’ve written, is simply beautiful.

    i just love you so much.

  7. momsbrain on

    Laura: I feel the same way. I always want to see her signature there.

    Jennifer: The nice thing was, Mom didn’t tell us how to think. I just observed her behavior, mostly. Even though her views were clear, she was not as emotional as I am about politics.

    Patrick: What would I do without you to help me along the way?

  8. Gina Langen on

    I have been reading your blog for a few months now, because it hits so close to home for me with my mother, who also has dementia. But this blog brought me to tears, because I could have written it, though not as beautifully as you did. One of the most heart-breaking aspects of this disease has been seeing my mother, also a long-time democrat, lose interest in the things that made her who she was: politics, elections, social functions, etc. Mom was involved in Ohio politics for as long as I can remember and raised six liberal, political children. I still talk politics with her and she still enjoys it but she doesn’t always know what I’m referring to.
    So thank you for your comments and this intimacy into your life…you put into words what others in similar situations are feeling.

  9. momsbrain on

    Oh, Gina, I am so sorry to hear about your mother. And thank you for your kind words. So many people are having this kind of experience. It just stinks.

  10. margaret massey on

    Really enjoyed this post.

    I was happy that my mom was interested in voting this year. She was very concerned that she might be disqualified because she’s in “an institution” now. (What she calls her assisted living.) She voted by absentee ballot a few weeks before the election and was very excited about it. Like your mom, she’s a life-long Democrat, so she just had to pick her party, and that was that.

    I’m curious how you and your mom decided that she was done voting, and I’m curious about the ethics of continuing to vote absentee with/for a parent you KNOW is a life-long party supporter, as long as s/he is still alive. I can defintely see why you didn’t want the two of you to go through that awkwardness again at the polling place though.

  11. momsbrain on

    I just felt that Mom’s interest in current affairs had declined so much in the year between voting opportunities that I didn’t think she would be interested in trying or understand what it meant to vote. And I am a die-hard go-to-the-polls person so it never occurred to me to absentee vote in her name. And I guess I would feel that is fraudulent – I wouldn’t want people on the other side of the political fence to be doing that, and I don’t think it’s right for me to, either. Even if I could easily vote Mom’s previous conscience… But it’s an interesting question.

  12. Lesley Austin on

    Dear Emily,
    I am really glad to have found your blog and this post (and the comments) hit home as we decided how to handle Mom’s voting this election. My mom never has been that politically active, tho’ she always voted in a progressive, mostly Democratic way (as far as I know!). But she hasn’t shown interest in anything political for years and we decided to go vote during her nap, while my son stayed at home with her.

    My husband and I discussed on the drive over other ways we might have handled it….he was all for using an absentee ballot (which, like you, we hadn’t thought of earlier) and I felt that it wouldn’t really be above board to do so. Whatever the right answer is, the fact is that Mom’s voting life was over several years ago…in some election that she participated in when she was still living on her own and driving herself places.

    And tho’ I make decisions for my mom all day long, day after day, this seems a really big and strange one to make for another person.

    So looking forward to following your blog from now on,


  13. margaret massey on

    Thanks for the elaboration. Makes complete sense.

    To clarify my question about the ethics of absentee voting for/with a parent who’s not totally “with it”, I hope it didn’t come across as me wanting to just fill in my desires in another person’s name, which I feel would be totally unethical. I guess I was visualizing the point where my mom might be still half-interested, but not enough to initiate the process, like she did enthusiastically this year. Or perhaps she will someday still want to vote, but not remember what party she preferred.

    In any case, I’m hoping that when the time comes for her to pull away from that process, it will be obvious and pretty clear cut to me, as it was with you.


  14. momsbrain on

    Ooh, Margaret, I didn’t mean to suggest you would participate in fraud, either, at all… I was just thinking through the idea because I hadn’t really thought about it. To be honest, when I realized Mom wasn’t going to be able to vote anymore, at the time I saw it as one less thing to do so I was kind of relieved. I went through a long period of thinking that way: about how her behavior affected me (which I feel guilty about now).

    Lesley: Welcome! I think everyone is different, too, and that should be taken into consideration. My mom has virtually NO memory at all, even long-term memory, and that happened sort of fast. So in the course of a year she truly lost all capacity to absorb what an election really meant. So it was clear to me that I couldn’t even guide her through voting as I had the year before. And since she also voiced opinions that no longer reflected her past, like being suspicious of Obama for example, I just wrote off voting for good because her judgment was so muddled. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

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