Privilege Blog

What If Dianne Feinstein Was Your Mother? Or, Saturday Morning at 8:29am

An older woman wearing large pearls sits next to a woman wearing smaller pearls
Nancy’s 84th Birthday, 2016

As you may know, Dianne Feinstein is one of California’s two senators. As you may also know, she’s 89, reportedly suffering from pretty severe short-term memory loss, and recovering from a case of shingles. She hasn’t attended Senate votes since February-ish. As a result, a California congressman, Ro Khanna, called for her to resign.

What do we think? The public discussion includes setting age limits in Congress, the need for Gen X representation, and all the insults you might imagine.

I wonder, what if Feinstein were my mom?

As you may also know, my mother died of Alzheimer’s in 2019, having first shown undeniable signs of memory loss–that I saw, her husband must have been aware sooner–in 2011. When her husband could no longer care for her, I took over trustee, health care power of attorney, and all that comes with those roles, including lots of time with her.

I read the stories about Feinstein’s lapses, and the concern among the other senators, and then I read the statements “from Feinstein,” and I’m pretty sure it ain’t her talking. Here’s are some things I think I learned about this kind of aging, for the person and those around her.

  • It comes on slowly
  • Denial is rampant, for the person and those who depend on her remaining in her role, her being “herself”
  • Mood swings begin, get worse, become unmanageable without medication. It seemed that it can be terrifying and frustrating to be a person experiencing your very personhood disappearing. The euphemism is, “agitation.” Yeah, you think?
  • The best way to relate is to go with the flow. If she thinks she’s getting ready for a visit and the closets need checking, you check the closets.
  • The person, just as you think she’s gone forever, will say something so lucid, so to the heart of the matter, that you will be glad they’re here on the earth. No matter the 90% of the time that they are sleeping or kicking someone or other difficult stuff.

So what about age limits for important jobs? The primary issue as I see it is we all age so differently. Remember when one friend’s kid walked at 9 months and the other not until a year and a half? Well, 9 months in baby is 9 years in elder. My father probably could have been a valuable senator until it ceased to interest him, and took time and fading energy away from what he cared about. So, let’s say 85? Not just valuable, invaluable. Those who age in power–mental, physical and most importantly, emotional–learn lessons we as humans in society need.

That thing we call wisdom is often just practice.

So let’s assume Senate aging is addressed carefully, case-by-case. Probably won’t be, but I’m the one writing here. For Dianne, trail-blazing, dedicated public servant that she is, I imagine without any knowledge that her staff wants her to keep the job. After all, she loses hers they lose theirs. I imagine in the same ignorance that her family doesn’t want to set her off/deprive her of happiness, depending on how much they operate from fear vs. affection.

If she were my mother, and her state of mind really bad, I just might check into having her declared incompetent. That’s a poor word, as is “dementia,” but it’s what we’ve got. Then the person who becomes her trustee, probably a child since her husband died very recently, could tender her resignation. We do need all our senators; we should start to empower a younger generation.

The thing is, you wouldn’t have to tell Senator Feinstein. She could keep “working,” reading papers, taking Zoom calls, and sending emails. If she recovers enough to travel, they could set up a seat for her in chambers. Honorary, with all the implications.

But I know that can’t happen. Too much work. Too much vulnerability in the halls of power, probably. And maybe I’m just remembering my mom. I miss her, and am so glad she had that 84th birthday moment when she was safe from herself and there for me in ways she could not be before she got sick.

Have a wonderful weekend.


36 Responses

  1. It’s been my observation that politicians leave office when they lose an election or die.
    She’s already bowed out of her next election, must she be ambushed by her own to depart sooner?

    You are absoutely correct about staff members propping up officials who’re not up to the full rigor of the job.
    I’m pretty sure that Grassely in Iowa and Roberts in Kansas are there mostly by virtue of their dedicated staffers, who’re probably busy working on where they’ll go after their golden gooses depart.

    Ms. Pelosi did step down, but she made a deal about her position as Majority Leader in the House several years ago, and was due to depart. The House is a somewhat younger and more rough riding legislative body.

    I hope that Californians will help this esteemed leader do the right thing. The opposition is more than happy to stand by and let the Judicial Committee not do much under her leadership, and we’re seeing that is not a good thing.

  2. I am not a liberal nor a Diane Feinstein fan but if we give John Fetterman a pass to go into a mental hospital after a couple of weeks into his tenure, then surely we should give her the same courtesy. Shingles does not affect your cognitive ability buts it’s damn painful. Mental illness affects your cognitive abilities. Is it because she is a woman? That’s a question by the way. We need to be fair where we can be in life.

    1. To represent both sides of the aisle, if we give Mitch McConnell a break for a fall, if we have given so many men a in pass over the years, at the very least I’d like to see them study and issue a policy that applies to all. Don’t make object lesson out of Feinstein. And I couldn’t agree more, “We need to be fair where we can be in life.”

  3. I have not followed the work of Diane Feinstein or many politicians since the Trumpian era. Regardless, of whose mother she is there comes a time when one has to be realistic. See Anthoney Fauci’s views on his resignation. As much as I admired RGB I felt she lost her capacity to see her plight realistically. I like Biden but worry that his age actually is an issue in the upcoming election. I have no means to solve my observations.


    1. These incidents of elderly public figures in positions of huge authority are coming at us fast. I think the means to solve will require a lot of focus and capability.

  4. Politics aside, your comments resonate strongly with me as they arrive on the day of the estate sale of my sister’s household effects. She is nearing 85 and in residential care, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My brother in law tried valiantly to keep her at home but in the end was defeated by that “agitation” which included my gentle sister coming after him with a knife. After 52 years of marriage, I believe that his struggle with her deterioration triggered his own decline. He died last November: failure to thrive. As their only child died three years ago I, like you, am the trustee, power of attorney and all the rest, unfortunately operating from a half a country away. I have become adept at navigating the endless requirements for death certificates, letters of incompetency, POA forms, copies of the trust. I sometimes wonder what on earth would become of her without someone like me (or the loyal politicians’ aides) to step in. It’s a heartless disease. Almost the worst thing, after my mother’s dementia and now my sister’s diagnosis, is wondering if I will be next.

    1. Wow, you have really gone through it. Your mother, now your sister, that is a lot. And the death of your niece/nephew and bother-in-law. I am so sorry that you had to deal with all endless forms. Yes. We wonder, will we be next? And although I hope out hope, as far as I can tell so far, we do not understand dementia yet. Maybe vascular dementia? Maybe some other forms? Certainly not Alzheimer’s. May they discover something in the not too far distant future.

  5. Number one, we no longer call it a mental hospital which has a very derogatory connotation. Depression is an actual disease, like diabetes or lupus. With medication and therapy, people can get better.
    Second, regarding this senator, she is not functioning as before and needs to make a space for a younger person to take her seat. She hasn’t been well for a long time. You took great care of your mom, Lisa, but I don’t think they are equivalent. Senators’ votes determine healthcare for the nation, abortion rules and judges appointments, etc. In my opinion, I would tell her the same thing I would have told my mom if she had been lucky enough to live to 89 instead of 65: you’ve been great, you did a fine job, and it’s time to go. Thank you for your service .

    1. You have much more expertise than I and I appreciate knowing that the community doesn’t like to use the term “mental hospital” any more. I had no idea. I will say that my policy here when people from the other side of the political spectrum comment civilly I attempt to respond in kind, while also standing up for my beliefs and my politicians. So, I still welcome a comment that concludes by saying we should all try to be fair, even if I bring up my own both-sidesism with Mr. McConnell.

      Second, I definitely don’t think my mom and the senator are equivalent. My point was that if Feinstein has dementia, she will respond to the reasonable kind statement you propose with completely unreasonable reactions. I was thinking that if she is far gone, maybe the only way to work through this in a just manner would be to face up to her dementia and treat her in a similar way as we found worked best with my mom. She resigns, but she gets to live in her past.

      1. I’m sorry if my response sounded uncivil and I did not intend to offend your reader. I think what triggered me was trying to make an equivalency between a younger man who suffered from depression ( probably after stroke, which is common) who is otherwise in functioning capacity and a person with shingles. Shingles was her recent medical issue but has nothing to do with the call for her to resign. In doing research we find that she has not been functioning well for a very long time; it is not her fault, cognitive decline can happen to anyone. As someone mentioned, there are times when personal preference is very dangerous: see our beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was in fine form but wouldn’t let go, with disastrous results for our country ( see Roe v. Wade, for example) . Her family and colleagues can honor Senator Feinstein’s service while perhaps involving doctors to gently help her to move into the next phase of life before another disaster happens in our country. If she were my mother that would be my primary concern; the country.

        1. It’s totally OK. I try to do a very difficult thing here, i.e. enable minimally defended discourse, and discussion that deconstructs common talking points/hot buttons. Your coming back here to expand on your meaning and intent is very generous, and models the type of community behavior I would like to foster.

          I am also glad you brought up the issue of stroke and depression. My daughter is researching the relationship between stroke and depression, and looking into the physical mechanisms that cause it. Depression isn’t just a bad mood, or being unable to see on the bright side, and it certainly isn’t a sign of weakness. It is common after strokes, not just because a stroke makes people sad.

          I agree, I would like Feinstein’s close circle to talk to doctors and find a way to help her transition to another way of life. I was imagining that that might involve some pretending for her, but of course I was projecting.

        2. You did not offend me. At 65 that takes a lot. It’s no different for our country whether it’s a younger man or a senior woman.if it’s about not functioning and being fit for the job, then it would only be fair to find a replacement for both Diane and John. After all, depression is most often something one struggles with for a lifetime and this I do know something about as I have close family members who have struggled with it for years.Fair is fair. Why demand this of a woman and not a man?

    2. It is a hospital for people with mental health issues. I’m 65 and I’m not using different words or pronouns. I’m too old. I’m sorry if that offended you or anyone else. I think you need to examine what I said.I am not a Feinstein supporter yet I was and am advocating for fairness for her. If that does not tell you something about me and where my heart is then I have nothing else to offer you. I’m talking about a specific person in a specific situation not some abstract principle about what we are calling things now days.

      1. If you see, Julie has apologized for any offense, and given background into her feelings. Now I am going to ask you to edit this comment, if you might. Can you please remove, “or pronouns?” I have a personal history around the discussion of pronouns, and I don’t want to go into it here, but I would appreciate your courtesy. I think the sense and import of your statement, re: the discussion here, would be unchanged. Thank you in advance.

        1. No, it’s fine. I just won’t comment any more. As I said, I’m too old to change and I too have history with pronouns and it’s not good. Please feel free to edit in any way you would like. It looks as though fair isn’t really fair on your blog anyway.

  6. My own mother is 91 and not entirely all there. It’s what her doctor calls “age-appropriate cognitive decline,” which differs from dementia in degree, I suppose. I’m mentioning this because Feinstein isn’t necessarily suffering from dementia. Cognitive decline, at least for me and my sisters, has been harder to understand the impact of because my mother has frequent bouts of “seeming like herself” and often is able to solve problems and figure things out, even though it’s a struggle. She’s also willing to acknowledge that she can’t always do things for herself. I don’t think the fuss and concern about Feinstein would be as intense if her party’s Senate majority weren’t so thin and the Democratic leadership, in general, so old.

    1. This is key. We don’t really know Feinstein’s condition. If she’s age-appropriate forgetful, does she have to step down? I don’t know. If she’s got dementia, yes, in my opinion she does. I agree, it’s about a thin majority and highly polarized Congress.

      Somehow I infer that your mom is pretty lovely.

  7. This is my second visit to reread today’s post. It has been on my mind all day as I wrestle with your thoughts Lisa and the comments from readers which are equally thought provoking. Although we differ politically on many issues and I have found myself at times being surprised at how far apart we all can be, I return to read again because I believe that I always benefit from reading of other’s personal experiences. At nearly 68 years old there is so much I don’t know and I so don’t want to get it wrong. Thank you for putting in the time to share with us.

    1. Patricia, thank you for devoting your time and mind to absorbing, if not agreeing with, a different perspective. Starting as where you are, admitting we don’t know everything, is so important. I don’t know everything either.

  8. Your approach would indeed be helpful. But it is very hard for me to get past my anger at California voters — including you, if I remember correctly — who supported her re-election (over other Democratic contenders) even though her decline was already apparent. Dealing with death is, paradoxically, sometimes easier than dealing with decline. And I worry a lot about what this means for the next presidential election. Sorry if this isn’t helpful, but thank you for putting up with my venting.

    1. Totally here for civil venting. Even being mad at me, without insults of course;).

      In 2018, Feinstein’s decline was evident, but not to this extent, if I remember. I also was wholly unfamiliar with her opponent. In 2024, if she’s still running, I plan to vote for Katie Porter. I’d do that even if Feinstein stuck with it. I have also called Feinstein’s office, to register my wish that she resign with her staff.

  9. This is such a tough situation. I understand that wisdom can come with age. At the same time, it takes a certain amount of hubris to stay in a job that is important to others when you are past your prime. At some point, perhaps in the early stages, a person has to be able to recognize that something is wrong. I think it is probably the duty of her children (I think she has some) to urge her to resign at this point. It’s all quite painful. Our country is not served by not allowing seats to be won by a younger generation. I am so grateful for Feinstein’s service.

    1. Yes, all of this. The hubris of those with visible, powerful jobs, I wonder if it’s kind of a requirement in a personality willing to undergo the misery of running for office in America? And in my experience, the person with dementia, if dementia it is, won’t acknowledge what’s happening without the cooperation of their community. It’s a very hard situation, and one we haven’t yet addressed/embraced as a society.

  10. If I were her daughter, I would absolutely work to encourage Senator Feinstein step down. After an illustrious career, I would want my mom to have privacy in her declining years. As I write that I wonder why. Is it because we as a society think lesser of those who are different or who are in decline? Would another approach be to let her capacities change publicly as a way to challenge our need to shuffle off the old folks behind closed doors? My gut feeling would be to protect mom from the public’s view but I hope I would take the time to think about why I would want to do that and to think also about what my mom would want, not just what I would want. For my mom, who wanted to present a coiffed and cultivated image to the world, she would not want her decline to play out publicly. Long winded way of saying, what would Senator Feinstein want and who is thinking of her?

    1. Thank you for sharing your whole thought process here. That’s kind of my question, and in my experience, the question is what date are we establishing for the version of Senator Feinstein whose wishes we want to honor? When she wa 30? 60? or now? I’m not challenging you, only investating this issue of end of life, wishes, dementia, responsibility, etc.

  11. A fascinating read! I am from Vermont and have enjoyed having Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders as my senators. I do think there should be term limits on our politicians. They can be long term limits like, maybe 5 rounds, which would be thirty years, which is about what the average boomer worked. Folks like McConnell, Graham, and even Leahy and Sanders are/were mostly out of touch with the realities of working people, especially blue collar workers or the generationally poor. Those who stepped away at reasonable time still had influence as college instructors, writers, lecturers, etc. And it would be great if they could mentor the new legislators rather than throwing them into the shark tank and having them take years to find their footing. And I would like to point out that there was the same kind of discussion about Ronald Regan near the end of his presidency. Is Feinstein at the receiving end of nasty comments because she has been a powerful woman? There are a lot of men who do not like powerful women, isn’t there? Recently I attended a lecture about Suffragettes. The point was made that until 50% of Congress are women, we will not be equal with all its connotations and implications. Okay, I’m done. Carol in VT

    1. And your comment is in itself a fascinating read. Term limits make sense to me. And maybe an age limit/assessment, like a driver’s license? It’s so often true that women are held to a higher standard than men. So often:(

  12. I would think that the old Senator Feinstein would want to be remembered for her powerful days, and not the last video records be of her “decline” or at least that is what I would is one thing to be around family friends and society but maybe not on the world stage forever on record…

    1. I wonder where we’d be if Senator Feinstein had been asked that question, how do you want to be finish your days in the Senate, at some point. Maybe if all senators were asked it in fact, and their answers recorded.

  13. Coming from an Australian context, I find the American situation with respect to very old people holding judicial and parliamentary offices very strange. Australia had serious issues with elderly judges becoming incompetent but refusing to retire, which led to the passage of a constitutional amendment in 1977 introducing a mandatory judicial retirement age of 70. Australians are notoriously reluctant to support referendums for constitutional amendments, this is one of the minority that has ever gotten up and there seems no movement to change it. With regard to members of parliament and senators, there is no mandatory retirement age but the operation of our political parties and electoral system mean that people simply cannot hang on like this: they would lose preselection and be out of the running at the next election. Occasionally politicians may hold office in their seventies, but this is rare and I’m not aware of anyone lasting into their eighties. Frankly, I think this is a good thing and there are other ways to continue to contribute to public life whilst allowing generational change in representation.

  14. My husband has literally just walked in after visiting his 87 year old mother in the home where she lives. She has had fully fledged, no-holds-barred Alzheimers for about six years, preceded by three years of us knowing that something was very very wrong indeed but finding it extremely hard to deal with. An awful lot of behaviour – panic calls, wandering, losing things, hallucinating, calling the police, calling an ambulance, terrible mood swings and abuse just for starters – came under the dreaded umbrella of cognitive decline…and as she lived fifty plus miles from us this was hard to manage. At some point somebody has to step in and make an executive decision about how people with this condition can live because when you no longer recognise your family members, are still waiting for your dead husband to come home from work, you really cannot do that yourself. I think, on the whole, we leave it too long for myriad reasons, citing their desire to stay in their home, not wanting them to lose independence, feeling guilty about doing this and then, one day, it is too late. A fall, an accident, an attack on somebody and the jig is up. I think 89 is a good crack of the working whip. And there is always a generation coming up behind who needs their chance.

  15. Hi Lisa
    Thanks for a difficult conversation. Being a politician requires intelligence, memory, knowledge of the issues,
    and knowledge of your voter base among many other characteristics. As a retired MD (internal medicine), I was regularly required to decide if a patient could drive. One requirement in the state of California to have a license to drive is to have an intact memory. Continuing to work as a physician per the Medical Board of California
    also requires an intact memory. Hopefully Mrs. Feinstein’s family and physicians are weighing in on the issue of her memory and ability to perform her job. Unfortunately, frequently a person lacks insight into whether one can continue to do a job (I experienced this problem with so many patients and families when I needed to tell the patient not to drive). I hope that Mrs. Feinstein acts with grace, dignity, and courage and resigns.

  16. A difficult subject handled with insight and kindness as always. My mother died with dementia 18 years ago. Her heart failed before the dementia was truly awful – she still knew me two days before her death, and she knew I was married and had a daughter but she couldn’t recall their names. If the Senator can do her job she should stay. Where I live in Australia a doctor needs to carry out an annual assessment for people 80 years or more to determine if they are fit to drive. From 85 onwards an annual driving test must also be taken and passed to retain a driving licence. Perhaps something similar could be used for elected representatives.

  17. shocking but not surprising that despite the obvious signs of severe senility that feinstein has frequently displayed since 2018 to the point that the california democratic party refused to endorse her run, she choose personal enrichment rather than ethical honour. i am disgusted by the greed and selfishness of her behaviour in greedily deciding that her life choices are more important than her constituents.

    i am an extremely fit sixty and am able to keep up with hikers, debaters, etc., 2 decades younger, however, i am extremely aware of my own mortality and impending decrepitude and death.

    she’s a selfish greedhead and her daughter is failing in her civic duty as a citizen in failing to address the truth; her mother is mentally incapacitated and therefore incompetent.

    disgusting. this is why so many old people get a bad rap. move over and let younger generations have a chance rather than selfishly hoarding resources and opportunities. to misquote my young friends “retire boomer retire”

  18. I believe DF’s family should encourage her to retire. A graceful retirement would be the ideal. That said, the question of when is the right time to retire is always hard and especially hard for someone that has led a very public life. Add health issues to this mix and the complexity is high.

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