Book review: ‘Who’s in Mama’s Chair?’ Loving a parent with Alzheimer’s

Marcia Krahn  ·  Oct 01, 2015

“This is a book I wish I didn’t have to write,” Samaritan member Eileen Hill states in the dedication of her book Who’s in Mama’s Chair? With honesty, humility, and sympathetic humor, she introduces us to her mother, Ruth Jackson Jenkins, once vibrant and loving, who now is “dying a little every day” with Alzheimer’s disease. She then invites us to watch from outside her window as she struggles to love and care for this “stranger” who sits in her mama’s chair.

Mama’s favorite place is her peach-colored velour rocker, bought a year after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. When Eileen and her husband, Kenny, bring Mama home to live, the peach chair comes along. Their master bedroom morphs into a condensed version of Mama’s home, stuffed with her treasures. Mama enters her new room, cuddles up in her chair, and feels at home again.

Eileen soon realizes that the way her mother sits in her chair is a clue to her mood and what kind of day they will both experience. Funny Mama asks, “You’ll never be RUTH-less as long as I’m here, right?” grinning at the word play on her name. Eileen tries to be attentive to Mama’s one-liners. “Did you know I was a pilot? I pile it here and pile it there.”

Dependent Mama is still in bed, covered up to her eyes, uncertain what to do. Sad Mama slouches and sighs, squeezing her eyes into slits to keep out all sunshine. The melancholy is palpable as Sad Mama stares vacantly, unaffected by any cheer Eileen offers.

As Eileen identifies her mother’s behavioral changes, each with distinct characteristics, she also becomes aware of her mother’s true needs and how to tenderly give her care. On those Sad Mama days, Eileen quietly comforts as best she can, and falls on her knees to pray for Mama and others full of sadness. Teddy Bear Mama lines her collection of teddy bears, many made by her own hand, in a jumbled line across furniture and floor. She needs a daughter-playmate to romp through a tea party with Teddy Grahams, gummy bears, and grandkids.

Restless Momma fidgets in her chair, rearranging her purse, books, jewelry, pictures. Restless Mama needs a daughter who will patiently provide simple tasks, not caring how or when they are done, allowing her to refold piled towels and take her on short walks or car rides. Anxious Mama, Sneaky Mama, Vulnerable Mama, all need an honorable and protective daughter who will shield her and intercede for her in her weakness. These insights come to Eileen after wrestling with herself, her mother, and, sometimes, her Lord.

Ultimately, Eileen grasps that God is using her mother’s disease as “a tool in His refining hands” to cultivate His likeness in her, and using her to be a channel of His love and care for her mother. Out of these realizations, Eileen gives us glimpses into what she faced each time a new Mama appeared, and how God challenged and nurtured her through that time. Eventually Fading Mama appears, who is seriously ill and no longer recognizes her, quickly followed by Institutional Mama, who must have medical care beyond Eileen’s ability to give. Eileen’s anguish during these days is evident as she relates her mother’s declining condition.

Finally, Victorious Mama emerges. Although it was months before Eileen could write this chapter, she is confident that her mother, Ruth Jackson Jenkins, is triumphant over the struggles and pain of Alzheimer’s, and is now seated with her Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ.

Who’s in Mama’s Chair? is a book that awakens compassion for caregivers and for those captured by Alzheimer’s disease, and inspires us through the love and servant heart of a godly daughter.