2013 Favs: Mama

Mama

Mama, out on the town at her favorite hamburger joint. She made the bead necklace she’s wearing at Adult Day Care — her “Job.” 

My mother smoked like a diesel for almost 70 years.

I guess she was lucky.

She didn’t get lung cancer. She never had asthma. But at the ripe old age of 85 or so, she developed COPD.

I’d heard of this disease, which, nearly as I can tell, is basically emphysema with complications and a larger understanding. But I didn’t know a lot about it. I have to admit that now that I’ve been the caregiver for someone who has it, I still don’t know a lot about it.

Extreme old age is tricky.

People this age have an overall feistiness that, when it combines with the lack of memory that goes with dementia, means they can fool you. One of my worst memories of care-giving was the time about a year ago when my mother almost died because I thought that making an appointment with the doc and taking her in the next day would be enough.

As I said, extreme old age is tricky.

They can be doing their “I’m ok,” feisty act one minute and gasping for breath the next.

We’ve had several close calls in which we had to literally pick her up and carry her to the car, then drive the few blocks to the nearest ER (if it had been further, I would have lost her.) But that day was the closest of close calls, and it was, as these things always are if you don’t act quickly enough, complicated by other problems.

Extreme old age is tricky.

Everything in the body is worn out and running on habit. When one thing (breathing) goes wrong, then the old heart starts to beat funny, and when the heart starts to beat funny, the lungs get cloudy, and when the lungs get cloudy, the heart stops being able to do its job, which somehow or other craters into kidney failure.

All in a matter of minutes.

If you don’t get it stopped at the breathing is getting difficult point, it’s like taking that first step out the hatch of the airplane without your parachute. It can take days to get her back ticking again.

That particular night, it was hours of ER close calls and docs who told me they didn’t “like the looks of it” followed by a week in the hospital.

Then Mama came home, feistiness fully intact, and thanks to no-short-term memory, blissfully unaware of most of what had happened. But I remembered. For a while after that, I was taking her to the ER if she coughed twice.

Extreme old age is tricky.

And the primary care-giver is also the first diagnostician. I make a lot of medical calls for my mother, including the all-important when to go to the doc or the ER. That’s dicey for the simple reason that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never dealt with this oddball combination of small child skating along on the ice in an 88-year-old body before.

And she is a small child.

A pampered, spoiled, demanding small child.

The further she gets into the dementia, the more childish she becomes. For instance, she loves for me to take her out for drives.

She loves for me to take her out for drives frequently. In fact, I think she would be happy to have me chauffeur her around all day, every day.

If I’m working on something, she says, “I want you to take me out for a drive now.”

I say, “I’m busy. We’ll do it in a few minutes.”

She looks at me almost exactly like the actor pretending to be a toddler demanding a cookie in Convos with My Two-Year-Old, and repeats “I want you to take me for a drive now.”

She doesn’t quit until I give up and do it.

She goes to Adult Day Care every day. I am going to write in more detail about Adult Day Care. It is a wonderful program. She loves her “job” as she calls it.

She loves it so much that she gets up about 5 every morning and starts announcing that it’s time to “go to work” and she’s going to be late. You can’t turn her off. It’s. Every. Morning.

Even though she loves Adult Day Care, she has a very short attention span. If there’s a lull in the good times, she’ll call me and tell me to come get her. Sometimes, she’ll announce that everybody is just sitting around doing nothing and she wants me to come get her. I remember once when I called the Director of the Day Care Center and told her Mama had called and I was coming to pick her up and she said, “You don’t want to watch the dancers, Mary?”

There were dancers, getting ready to perform, and my elderly toddler got tired of waiting for them to get with it and called for me to come get her. If I’d gone over there, she would have gotten miffed because I stopped her from “having fun” watching the dancers.

If the “I’m bored,” explanation doesn’t move me to come get her, she’ll tell me she’s sick. I always go when she says she’s sick. I don’t have a choice, since there’s no way to know if it’s real or bluff.

In fact, I got one of those calls just a few days ago. Obedient daughter that I am, I drove over, parked the car, went in and got her. As I was guiding her and her cane/jacket/stuffed animal-she’d-won/painting-she’d-made to the car, she told me “I was having fun.” It seems that between the sick call and when I got there, the staff had gotten the fingerpaints out and Mama had gone from too sick to stay to having too much fun to leave.

On the last day of May, the whole town was under threat of the widest tornado in history. As our family gathered around the tv to watch what was happening and decide what to do, Mama kept talking.

She does that.

Talk, I mean.

Non-stop. Just like a toddler. You can’t really have a conversation with her anymore, but she rattles non-stop as long as she’s awake.

I usually just un-huh her the way I did the kids when they were babies.

But we needed to hear the tv.

“Hush,” I told her.

She paused for a beat, then started in, talking about one of the lamps or something.

“Mama,” I said, waiting until she stopped chattering and looked at me, “Hush.”

She stared at me a moment, then turned away. “Well alright. I guess if I can’t say anything, I’ll just be quiet. I don’t know why I can’t talk. But if you want me to just sit here and not say anything, then, I’ll shut up. If that’s what you want, then I guess I’ll have to do it, but I don’t see why I can’t talk

“…

“sigh

“…

“That lamp shade is crooked. Or maybe it’s made to look like that. No. I think it’s crooked. Mary Belle had a lampshade like that. Only hers was pink. Or maybe it was purple. I want you to take me for a drive …..”

We give her the medicine she’s supposed to have. Then, we watch her swallow it. Otherwise, (for reasons I do not know) she will hide it behind her bed.

We hide her medicine so she can’t find it. Otherwise, (again, for reasons I do not know) she will decide she’s not getting enough and upend the bottle into her mouth.

I give her money to take with her to her “job.” But I can’t give it to her too soon because she will hide it, and then she’ll forget that she hid it and tell me somebody stole it.

She gets lost in the house.

She tells everyone that I “stole” her car from her.

And to this day, if I needed a heart transplant, she would say, “Here. Take mine.”

My Mama. My sweet, baby Mama.

I love her so much it makes my teeth ache.

It is no burden, taking care of my Mama.

It is a blessing and a privilege. I cherish every day with her.

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I Got My Best Christmas Present Early This Year

I got my best Christmas present early this year.

My mother is home from the hospital today, after a close encounter with a stroke that would have left the right side of her body useless to her.

She is ok, with no visible after effects, due to quick action and great medical care. One of my sons asked me how I knew that this was a stroke and what to do about it. I had to think for a moment. How did I know?

Then, I remembered. We had a group of speakers from one of our hospitals at a Rotary meeting. They gave information about the warning signs of a stroke, and also told us which hospital in the area was equipped to treat strokes.

It’s important to know these things. Strokes don’t just happen to elderly people like my mother. They can happen to anyone, at any time in their lives. The disability that strokes cause can be devastating. The great thing is that there is often a way for medical people to stop the stroke and prevent this tragedy. But you have to get the person who is having the stroke to medical care early enough.

I’ve put together a few videos about strokes. I hope you’ll take the time to watch them and then find out where the best facility for treating a stroke is in your area. The most important thing to remember is an acronym: FAST.

Here is a copy of a warning card describing FAST from the National Stroke Association. To get a copy to print out and put in your wallet, go here.

Here is additional information that I found on the National Stroke Association website. I think it’s important to note these more subtle symptoms. I decided my mother needed to go to the er because she had a tingly feeling on the right side of her face and her right arm. She also had sudden dizziness and a headache.

Learn as many stroke symptoms as possible so you can recognize stroke as FAST as possible. Click here to download the FAST Wallet Card to keep a reminder of stroke warning signs with you wherever you go!

Stroke symptoms include:

  • SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body.
  • SUDDEN confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • SUDDEN trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • SUDDEN trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • SUDDEN severe headache with no known cause.

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you have any of these symptoms

Note the time you experienced your first symptom.
This information is important to your healthcare provider and can affect treatment decisions.

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Book Review: The Way We Were

To join the conversation about The Geography of Memory, a Pilgrimage Through Alzheimers, or to order a copy, go here

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The Geography of Memory a Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, is a personal memoir, written by a woman whose mother died at the age of ninety after a long slide downward into dementia. 

Jeanne Murray Walker writes about growing-up in Nebraska during the 50s against the backdrop of her mother’s slowly worsening dementia. She describes her efforts to participate in her mother’s care, despite the fact that she lived half-way across the country from her mother. 

Caring for a dying parent seems to rip open the seams on the bag of memories we all have inside us. I experienced this when my father was dying. Things you thought were lost in the fog of time step out of the backdrop and present themselves to you, complete and fresh. I suddenly remembered my father as he had been when I was a tiny girl. I saw his face, heard his voice from back then. The experience taught me that we don’t forget. We simply file away and lose as the detritus of our daily living piles itself on top what happened back when. 

Evidently, Mrs Walker experienced something like that when her mother was sliding down. This book is the result of those awakened memories from her life, built around the backdrop of her mother’s slow leave-taking. 

Mrs Walker’s mother was a magnificent woman. She was one of those kind-as-Christmas, tough-as-a-Missouri-rail-spike fundamentalist Baptist women I grew up around and have known all my life. The faith people follow shapes them in powerful ways that are reflected in their overall character. It also infuses them with strength and a kind of power that people without faith, or with only a wishy-washy faith, simply do not have. 

This woman lost her husband at a young age, and was faced with supporting her three children back in the 50s and 60s, when career opportunities for women were limited mostly to jobs that paid less simply because they were “women’s work.” 

Fortunately, she was an educated woman for those years, a nurse. She told her kids that she would never afflict them with a stepfather and pushed on with the business of bringing home the bacon, paying the bills, and, as we say in this part of the world, raising them right. The Baptist church, with its simple theology and rock-ribbed certainties, formed the spine on which she built this life and raised her kids. 

When her only son died of asthma, she did not despair. She kept going and going, right through what sounds like a beautiful second marriage after her children were grown and on into an interested and interesting old age. 

Her mind began to betray her when she was in her mid 80s and then slowly unraveled itself as she aged into 90. Even though her daughters managed her care and placed her in what sounds like the best care facilities, she basically traversed this path alone. 

But The Geography of Memory is really about Jeanne Murray Walker rather than her mother. It tells the story of how Mrs Walker traveled the country in an exhausting round of visits and suffered the pain of separation from her mother during the time her mother was slowly dying. It describes honestly the confusion, pain, anger and exhaustion Mrs Walker felt while doing this. 

It also tells the story of what it was like to be raised by this woman. It is a memoir of a time, place and people that could only exist in the middle of America. The rock-ribbed faith and equally rock-ribbed courage of this woman infuse the daughter’s life with a strength that allows her to step out and move on. 

This is a familiar story to me. I know women like Mrs Walker’s mother. I grew up around them. I have also seen their daughters’ ability to separate and spread their wings, something that only really great mothers give their children. Read through that lens, The Geography of Memory is as much a book on the lost art of courageous child-rearing as it is a book about the slow declines of old age. 

Mrs Walker’s mother was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I doubt that was what was wrong with her memory. This thing that happens to most elderly people is a slide backwards into childhood and, ultimately, confusion. It’s as if the brain becomes disorganized; a tangled heap. 

I haven’t had a family member with Alzheimer’s, but I’ve seen a lot of it in my constituents. The word “alzheimer” has become a catch-all for the various dementias of old age. But it is a specific thing all its own that does not, so far as I can see, only strike the very elderly. My constituents with Alzheimer’s are different from the way Mrs Walker describes her mother. With them, it’s not so much a matter of losing their way to the bank as it is not knowing what a bank is. Over a period of time, they go blank. Instead of being a tangled heap, their brains seem to be hollowed out.

The reason I’m saying this is because it matters in how we treat our older people. 

The Geography of Memory is a beautifully written memoir about a magnificent woman and her magnificent daughter. The lessons it teaches are about living far more than they are about dying. Perhaps its sweetest lesson is that the memories of our lives are worth telling. 

My Golden Mama and Her Slow Good-bye

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Let me tell you about my mother. 

She is 87 and she gets confused. 

She gets confused a lot.

For a couple of years there, every day was a challenge just to keep her alive. We rushed her to the hospital several times so they could drag her back from the edge. Now, her physical health has stabilized, but her mental health is going downhill, a little bit at a time.

She reminds me quite often that I took her car away from her. She’s lost that sense of time that lets the rest of us grieve a loss and then move on, leaving it in our past. When she remembers that she doesn’t have a car, the indignation is as fresh for her as the day it happened. The day I took that car was a sad day for me, too. When she tells me, as she does at least once every day, that I “took” it from her, it re-opens the pain in me, as well.

Other than the car memories, my mother is as sweet as a small child. She accepts whatever I suggest as the best thing and she trusts me the same way my children did when they were little. Like them, she talks almost non-stop, prating along about things that happened, or didn’t happen but that she thinks happened, 60, 70 or even 80 years ago. 

For my part, I’ve fallen into the same u-huh, u-huh, answers that I gave my babies when they chattered to me as they “helped” me wash dishes or plant flowers or whatever. I do a lot of the same things with her that I did with them. We sat in the backyard yesterday and counted the blue-jays and the robins to determine which are the most numerous. 

The differences are that when I told them something, they remembered it later that day. Mama doesn’t. That, and the fact that my babies were moving forward toward independent life, while Mama is moving inexorably away from independent life and then on to the next life on the other side of this one. 

Forgetfulness is a blessing of sorts. At the beginning of this journey, she knew when she forgot and it upset her. Now, she no longer remembers that she doesn’t remember. She’s much happier this way. 

I never remind her that she’s asked me that same question several times. I just answer her again. I don’t chide her about calling me 10 times in 15 minutes when I’m at work. I just talk to her each time as if it was the first call; because for her, it is. 

I love my mother. I always have. But in some ways, she’s more precious to me now than she ever was before. She is so sweet, and so good. The pretensions we hide our real selves behind are gone from her. Her personality is stripped down to the unself-conscious realness of its bare self. What that is in my mother is a person who is all love, all generosity, trusting and deeply, profoundly innocent. 

Caring for her during these years of her slow good-bye has given me the chance to see my mother as she really is without any cover. What I’ve seen is that she is a wonderful person, all the way through. 

This is precious time, these years with her. I would not trade them for anything. There are moments, every once in a while, when I miss who she used to be. I would love to just sit down and have a talk with Mama as she was. But that can’t be and I know it, so I run my mental fingers over the weave of the thought and then fold it up, put it away and go back to the reality of the sweet baby Mama I still have. 

Old age is not a tragedy. It most certainly is not a waste or a burden to those who aren’t there yet. It is a gift and a treasure; a phase of life like any other. My mother is going through a slow and beautiful passage from this life to the next one. It make take her years yet. Her family is a very long-lived tribe. Or, it may end suddenly, at any time.

Whichever way that happens, I know that she and her ultimate future are in God’s loving hands. I only thank Him for giving me this present time to love and cherish her now. It is, like she is, golden. 

John Paul II: No Authority Can Justify Euthanasia


Euthanasia is an attack on life that no human authority can justify, because the life of an innocent person is an indispensable good.

NO AUTHORITY CAN JUSTIFY EUTHANASIA
Pope John Paul II

Life of the elderly must be respected, Holy Father says in address to international conference
“The respect that we owe the elderly compels me once again to raise my voice against all those practices of shortening life known as euthanasia…. Euthanasia is an attack on life that no human authority can justify, because the life of an innocent person is an indispensable good”, the Holy Father said on Saturday, 31 October, to those attending an international conference on the elderly sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers. The Pope spoke of respect for the elderly and encouraged families to benefit from the wealth of experience that their older members have to offer. Here is a translation of his address, which was given in Italian.

Your Eminences,

Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and the Priesthood, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. It is a pleasure to welcome all of you who are attending the international conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health-Care Workers on a theme that is one of the traditional aspects of the Church’s pastoral concern. I express my gratitude to those of you who dedicate your work to the complex problems facing the elderly, who are becoming ever more numerous in every society of the world.

I thank Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragan for his noble words expressing the sentiments you share. Your conference has wanted to address the problem with that respect for the elderly which shines brightly in Sacred Scripture when it shows us Abraham and Sara (cf. Gn 17:15-22), when it describes the welcome that Simeon and Anna gave Jesus (cf Lk 2:23-38), when it calls priests elders (cf. Acts 14:23; 1 Tm 4:14; 5:17, 19; Tt 1:5; 1 Pt 5:1), when it sums up the homage of all creation in the adoration of the 24 elders (Rv 4:4), and finally when it describes God himself as ‘the Ancient One” (Dn 7:9-22).

2. Your studies emphasize how great and precious is human life, which retains its value in every age and every condition. They reaffirm with authority that Gospel of life which the Church, in faithfully contemplating the mystery of Redemption, acknowledges with ever renewed wonder and feels called to proclaim to the people of all times (cf. Evangelium vitae, n. 2).

Scripture promises long life to those who fulfil God’s law

The conference did not only deal with the demographic and medical-psychological aspects of the elderly, but also sought to examine the matter more closely by focusing its attention on what Revelation presents in this regard and comparing it with the reality that we experience. The Church’s work over the centuries has also been emphasized in a historical-dynamic way, with useful and fitting suggestions for updating every charitable initiative, in responsible collaboration with the civil authorities.

3. Old age is the third season of life: life that is born, life that grows, life that comes to an end are the three stages in the mystery of existence, of that human life which “comes from God, is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life” (Evangelium vitae, n. 39).

The Old Testament promises long life to human beings as the reward for fulfilling the law of God: ‘The fear of the Lord prolongs life” (Prov 10:27). It was the common belief that the prolonging of physical life until “good old age” (Gn 25:8), when a man could die “full of years” (Gn 25:8), should be considered a proof of particular goodwill on God’s part. This value must also be given renewed attention in a society that very often seems to speak of old age only as a problem.

To devote attention to the complexity of the problems affecting the world of the elderly means, for the Church, to discern a “sign of the time” and to interpret it in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in a way suitable to each generation, she responds to the perennial human questions about the meaning of present and future life and their mutual relationship (cf. Gaudium et spes, cf. 4)

4. Our times are marked by the fact that people are living longer, which, together with the decline in fertility, has led to a considerable ageing of the world population.

For the first time in human history, society is faced with a profound upheaval in the population structure, forcing it to modify its charitable strategies, with repercussions at all levels. It is a question of new social planning and of reviewing society’s economic structure, as well as one’s vision of the life-cycle and the interaction between generations. It is a real challenge to society, whose justice is revealed by the extent to which it responds to the charitable needs of all its members: its degree of civilization is measured by the protection given to the weakest members of the social fabric.

5. Although often regarded as only the recipients of charitable aid, the elderly must also be called to participate in this work; over the years the elderly population can attain a greater maturity in the form of intelligence, balance and wisdom. For this reason Sirach advises: “Stand in the assembly of the elders. Who is wise? Cleave to him” (Sir 6:34); and again: “Do not disregard the discourse of the aged, for they themselves learned from their fathers; because from them you will gain understanding and learn how to give an answer in time of need” (Sir 8:9). It is clear that the elderly should not be considered merely an object of concern, closeness and service. They too have a valuable contribution to make to life. Thanks to the wealth of experience they have acquired over the years, they can and must be sources of – (cf. wisdom, witnesses of hope and love Evangelium vitae, n. 94).

The family-elderly relationship must be seen as a relationship of giving and receiving. The elderly also give: their years of experience cannot be ignored. If this experience, as it can happen, is not in harmony with the changing times, their whole life can still become a source of so much guidance for their relatives, representing a continuation of the group spirit, of traditions, of professional choices, of religious beliefs, etc. We are all aware of the special relationship that exists between the elderly and children. Adults too, if they know how to create an atmosphere of esteem and affection around the elderly, can draw from their wisdom and discernment to make prudent decisions.

6. It is in this perspective that society must have a renewed awareness of solidarity between generations: a renewed awareness of the sense and meaning of old age in a culture only too dominated by the myth of productivity and physical capacity. We must allow the elderly to live with security and dignity, and their families must be helped, even economically, in order to continue being the natural place for inter-generational relations.

Further observations must also be made regarding social health care and rehabilitation, which often can be necessary. Advances in health-care technology prolong life, but do not necessarily improve its quality. It is necessary to develop charitable strategies that put a priority on the dignity of the elderly and that help them, as far as possible, to maintain a sense of self-esteem lest, feeling they are a useless burden, the eventually desire and ask for death (cf Evangelium vitae, n. 94).

Life is God’s gift and must always be protected

7. Called to prophetic deeds in society, the Church defends life from its dawn to its conclusion in death. It is especially for this final stage, which often lasts for months and years and creates many serious problems, that I appeal today to the sensitivity of families, asking them to accompany their loved ones, to the end of their earthly pilgrimage. How can we not recall the tender words of Scripture: “O son, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if his is lacking in understanding, show forbearance; in all your strength do not despise him. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and … in the day of your affliction it will be remembered in your favour” (Sir 3:12-15).

8. The respect that we owe the elderly compels me once again to raise my voice against all those practices of shortening life known as euthanasia.

In the presence of a secularized mentality that does not respect life, especially when it is weak, we must emphasize that it is a gift of God which are all obliged to protect. This duty particularly concerns health-care workers, whose specific mission is to become “ministers of life” in all its stages, especially in those marked by weakness and illness.

“The temptation … of euthanasia” appears as “one of the more alarming symptoms of the ‘culture of death’ which is advancing above all in prosperous societies” (cf. Evangelium vitae, n. 64).

Euthanasia is an attack on life that no human authority can justify, because the life of an innocent person is an indispensable good.

9. Turning now to all the elderly of the world, I wish to say to them: dear brothers and sisters, do not lose heart: life does not end here on earth, but instead only starts here. We must be witnesses to the resurrection! Joy must be a characteristic of the elderly; a serene joy, because the time is coming and the reward that the Lord Jesus has prepared for his faithful servants is approaching. How can we not think of the touching words of the Apostle Paul? “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tm 4:7-8).

With these sentiments I impart an affectionate Blessing to you, to your loved ones and especially to the elderly.

Taken from:
L’Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 November 1998, page 7
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