During the last four years, my first teacher—my mother—has been suffering from vascular dementia. Its onset has been gradual and at times even imperceptible, as is often the case. Of course, I wish life was easier for my mother; that she still had full use of her memory, language and rational faculties. But given the realities, I am also grateful for the opportunity to learn new lessons that my mother’s aging and illnesses present.

Unlike some of my friends, I haven’tShe has never stopped being my teacher had to step into full-time caretaker shoes. My mother has been blessed with the means to live into old age on her terms: without needing to rely on her children to take care of her. With the help of a home health-care policy and 24-hour-aides, she is able to live independently in her own apartment.

Still, opportunities for patience, understanding and love abound. I have willingly stepped into the shoes of care manager, calling daily, flying from New York to Florida every six weeks or so trying to help ensure her health, happiness and safety in these not-always-so golden years.

Even so, she has never stopped being my teacher—in some ways, perhaps more so now than ever. These lessons test my mettle, sometimes on a daily basis. They better help me define my evolving relationship to my mother as I age: both the qualities we share and our individual differences. They teach me when to guide and when to take a deep breath, when to give my mother a large hug and when to quietly weather the storm. They constantly challenge me to act patiently and wisely so her needs are properly met, and yet still step back so I don’t rob her of her independence. To act like a daughter fully on behalf of her mother.

My mother has always been active, always giving to others, and she still insists on doing what she can for herself: making her own breakfast and bending to throw out or pick up whatever falls on the floor. I inwardly flinch whenever I see these movements, which often makes her scoliosis-related pain in her crooked, even Dali-esque-appearing body more acute. When it’s time to bring her empty tea mug into the kitchen, she insists on holding her walker with one hand and the mug in another—a balancing acts that sends chills down my spine. Like her aides, I closely shadow her so she doesn’t fall. When I’m not having a meal with her or looking at family picture albums with her, I keep a careful eye open so that she doesn’t forget her walker, or worse, begin rearranging the heavy plates in her credenza.

I’ve made some additional adjustments in order to do things my mother’s way. If my mother hasn’t been 20 minutes early for an appointment, she considers herself late. Generally, if f I am 15 minutes late, I consider myself on time (and sometimes, even early). I’ve now trained myself to learn to be on “mom time,” at least when I’m with her (and sometimes when I’m not.). To see that she’s ready with her walker, her pocketbook and a sweater in case the air-conditioning is too strong. All so that she will be her usual early self. When she rushes me, which she still occasionally has to do, I no longer feel put off. In fact, the buttons that I once allowed to be pushed have faded from existence through an emotionally loving embrace.

There are times, of course, thatThere are times, of course, I’ve had to stand my own ground I’ve had to stand my own ground. There are also times when my mother gives in to preserve my happiness. Sometimes, these times are one and the same. When my mother began to leave her bed at night—uncertain as to where she was or what she was hearing—my brother and I insisted on her having nighttime aides. My mother objected vehemently, feeling that such help would further compromise her selfhood. Finally, when logic failed, it was an appeal to her heart: my professed love for her that led to her reluctant consent. “I never want to hurt or worry you,” my mother says. It’s true. She has always approached me with only the best of intentions.

Although they’re not mutually exclusive, with my mother’s lessening reliance on logic, she has also put more trust in faith. We often talk about the Jewish view of the afterlife: what might happen when my mom exhales her last breath. She wants to be prepared. She openly broaches funeral plans (which she pre-paid), the award-winning pictures she painted and her treasured photo albums that she’d like to remain part of her legacy. Sensing my own lack of ease with the subject, she tells me, “She loves me as high as the sky.” I see in those moments my well mother, still trying to comfort her vulnerable daughter.

Despite also loving life, she assures me that whatever happens, whenever it happens, she’ll be ready, making the prospect of her leaving just a little easier. In time, I’ve come to realize that our visits are equally essential for me. The Torah commands us to honor and respect our parents at all times, but for me, it is a privilege to still have my mother and to continue to be with her.

Even as my mother loses her ability to speak, to remember and to reason, I need only, in turn, look with loving eyes, and a patient mind to find that neshama, soul essence, the part that will always remain my mother.

Meanwhile, to have her here, in whatever form, is a gift to treasure.