By Tom Robotham

Recent speculations that President Biden is afflicted with dementia have caused me to reflect on the disturbing experience of watching my mother descend into her own delusional state of mind. 

I’m not sure exactly when she began to show signs of it. I suspect there were early indications that I simply missed. In 2012, however, when she was about to turn 90, something happened to drive home the reality. That spring, my daughter was due to graduate from Bennington College in Vermont. Since I had to head north anyway, I offered to stop in Staten Island on my way and take my mom along for the ceremony. 

There was a lot of tension between us in those days, so the drive from New York to Vermont was predictably stressful. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to reserve two motel rooms near the college. After rolling into the parking lot, I tried to get her settled into her room but as she unpacked, she realized she’d forgotten her tooth brush. 

“Ok,” I said. “Let’s go buy one.”

We were close enough to be able to walk to the downtown shopping district and quickly found a drug store that had a variety of toothbrushes. Unfortunately, she didn’t like any of them. We went to another store, then another, but still no luck. I suggested that we just go back to the motel and rest. We’d find a toothbrush later.

After getting her settled into her room at long last, I went around the corner, sat on a bench and lit up a cigarette. A minute later, I saw my mom rounding the corner and walking toward me. 

“Excuse me, sir,” she said as she stopped in front of me. “Do you know where I can buy a toothbrush? My son and I went looking for one but couldn’t find one.”

“Ma, it’s me!” I responded. 

“Oh, oh! Tommy. I didn’t recognize you.” 

After getting her resettled in her room, my stress level was pretty high, so I went out for another smoke. As I was heading back, I saw her wandering into the parking lot and approaching a man who’d just parked his motorcycle. She was carrying the TV remote and asked him if he knew how it worked. I quickly intervened, apologized to the man, then entered her room and got the TV tuned to the channel of her choice. 

All seemed well after that. We had a nice dinner in town and the evening passed peacefully. The next day, the ceremony and after-party also went well, and the day after that we had an uneventful drive back to New York. Over the next three years, however, the shock of her dementia would hit me again and again whenever I visited. 

She’d been living alone for a long time. My parents’ marriage had grown bitter when I was in high school, and he’d finally left when I was a senior in college. At the age of 65, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and in 2005—his body decimated—he died. Notably, he never lost his mental faculties. Whenever I talked to him on the phone he sounded as sharp and as lucid as ever, and I’ve often thought about that: What’s worse? To remain physically fit but lose your mind, or to lose control of your body but retain your intellectual capacities and your memory? My mom had remained fit well into her 80s, often going into Manhattan by herself and on occasion going to Europe on one of those old-people tours. I admired that. Still, the slow creep of dementia scares me more than physical decline.

At any rate, I watched it happen. I was thankful that my sister still lived in New York and could keep a closer eye on my mom, but I tried to visit as often as possible, and six months later I went up again. When I arrived, I told her I was going to grab some Chinese takeout so neither of us would have to cook. She said that was fine, but when I returned and started unpacking the food, she seemed confused.

“You’re going to eat that?” she said. “What’s Tommy going to eat?” 

I realized that she thought I was my dad. 

“I’m Tommy,” I said. (No one else has called me Tommy since I was 10, but I ignored that.)

“Oh,” she said, seeming indifferent to her mistake.

The next morning, I heard her rattling pots and pans in the kitchen. 

“I can’t find the lid to this pot,” she called out. “Do you know what happened to it?” 

I told her I didn’t. 

“Do you think one of the neighbors came in and took it?” she asked. 

“That’s ridiculous!” I snapped. “First of all, if someone broke in and took a pot lid, wouldn’t they take the pot that went with it?!” 

I’ve long since realized that reasoning with her was futile, and expressing frustration wasn’t my finest moment. If I had it to do over again, I would simply say, “I’ll ask them.” After all, she would have forgotten about the whole thing five minutes later.

It wasn’t long thereafter that my sister and I came to terms with the fact that our mother could no longer live alone, as physically fit as she was for her age. Finding a solution was another matter. A live-in-nurse was also out of the question, not only because of the expense but because my mom hated the idea. A nursing home made more sense, but she hated that idea even more.

I brought it up one day after taking her to a doctor’s appointment. 

“I’m NOT moving!” she yelled. 

By that point, she had a visiting nurse to make sure she took her medications, but one day when he arrived, he found her lying in bed and completely out of it. A short time later, we got a call that she was in the hospital. I was glad I happened to be in New York at the time, having dinner with my sister and her husband in Manhattan. We grabbed a cab and rushed to the hospital in Staten Island, where we found her groggy but OK.

A few days later, we transferred her to a nursing facility. She thought she was still in the hospital, and when I visited her there, she told me she was tired of the place and was going to walk home. I don’t recall my response, but it was probably a cop out: “The doctors say you have to stay here a little longer”—or something like that. 

During a visit a few months later, she told me of another plan: “I’ve decided I’m going back to Tallahassee to live with my parents.”

They’d been dead since 1965, but by this point I’d finally accepted her condition, so I simply nodded.  

Around the same time, I brought from the house a framed photo of her childhood home in Fort Lauderdale. 

“Oh, that’s nice,” she said when I hung it on the wall. “I remember when you used to live there.” 

Six months later, the nursing home notified us that she’d died, just a few months short of her 93rd birthday. 

If I had it to do over again, there are many things I’d do differently: find a way to have her come live with me, perhaps, or move back to Staten Island to take care of her. That would have been impractical, though. I didn’t have the resources to quit working and take care of her full-time—and even if I did, how would it have worked? I couldn’t have watched her 24/7. But that’s what she needed near the end. 

All of which brings me back to Biden. His well-publicized gaffes notwithstanding, I’ve seen nothing that reminds me of my mother’s decline. Then again, like most Americans, I’ve only seen him on television. To get a better sense, I try to pay attention to people who’ve spent time with him. Journalist Evan Osnos recently did, and reported his observations in a lengthy profile in The New Yorker.

Osnos says Biden struck him as “a more solemn figure” than he used to be, and goes on to say this: “His voice is thin and clotted, and his gestures have slowed, but, in our conversation, his mind seemed unchanged. He never bungled a name or date.” 

That’s not definitive, of course. It’s possible that he was just having a good day, as my mother did at times, even after that time in Vermont when she didn’t recognize her own son. By all indications, though, he remains extremely sharp. With that in mind, I’m tired of hearing the armchair diagnoses—all the more so when they’re accompanied by a sneering chuckle. I’m no expert, but I know this: Dementia’s no laughing matter, and the word shouldn’t be tossed around lightly.