Mama

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

We had a family discussion last night. The upshot was that the time has come to consider putting Mama in a nursing home.

That’s what the family members I love told me. Their verdict was simple: You will kill yourself, taking care of her.

I, being Ms Reasonable, let them talk me down. I insisted on a delay, but agreed that, by the end of summer, I would find a place for her.

Then, last night, I sat up and googled nursing homes. I read the laws that I helped write, perused the regs that came from them. I plowed through the patient responses and the details of the inspections of these places.

There is a good place just around the corner from my house. It specializes in caring for people with dementia. It has a great patient-staff ratio. There are only four patients in each unit and a staff of 8 to care for them. The people there are happy.

And I could go get her and take her out every day. We could bring her home for dinner and keep her as part of the family.

I would put her there in a heartbeat. She would be happy there, and that’s what matters.

But it costs over $80,000 a year, out of pocket. My pocket.

Mama’s grandfather lived to be 101. Her family is full of people who lived into their high nineties. I may have her for a long while yet. I don’t have the money to put her in this good place where she would be happy. I just can’t do it.

The Church runs a nursing home that everyone, including the residents, says is a good place. But it is, pardon my language, to hell and gone from where I live. I couldn’t go get her and take her out every day. Or, if I did — which I would — it would involve driving almost 40 miles each way, right across the heart of the most densely populated area in the state. A daily visit would take half a day. Every day.

There is no other place that I can afford that I would consider for my mama.

So, I decided I would call and get her a place in the Catholic nursing home and spend the rest of her life — which I hope is long — driving for half a day, every day.

Then, even as I made this decision, I undecided it. I thought of her fearful reaction, her heartbreak at being put in a strange environment. I thought of how far away from me this place is. I thought of her, of who she is.

And I undecided to make that call.

“If it kills me, taking care of her, then I guess it will kill me,” I said aloud to the empty room. Then I prayed and handed the whole thing over to God and went to bed.

My husband went to early mass Sunday. I stayed home with Mama. He came back with a big bag of donuts. She loves donuts.

She was eating what I think was her third of fourth donut while I sat at the table with her, listening to her prattle.

“Are you any relation to me?” she asked, and took another bite.

“I’m your daughter,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, and reached for another donut.

Her daughter. That’s what I am.

My 24/7 Mama and Zombie Days

mama.jpgMy mother is doing a new thing with her dementia.

A couple of years ago, she stopped eating. It took all sorts of finagling to get her started again. Now, she eats and demands ice cream (which she always tells me she hasn’t had “in years”) in between meals. Yesterday, she asked me how I was doing. “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” she said.

A few months before she quit eating, she stopped drinking water. We had to put her in the hospital a couple of times because she got so dehydrated. Then, we managed to get her going again on drinking water, and now it’s like it never happened.

The new deal is that she won’t sleep. She was up — and me along with with her — all night Sunday night. Just refused to go to bed. All day yesterday she was hyper confused and weepy. But she wouldn’t take a nap and when bedtime came, she flat-out refused to lie down and go to sleep.

I managed to get her down by being very firm with her. I scolded her like she was a two-year-old (which makes me feel like a rat) and told her to lie down and go to sleep. She slept, but I didn’t. I was up until almost four in the morning, and then I didn’t sleep when I finally went to bed.

Long story not so short: I’m taking a zombie day. I had all sorts of things planned that I needed to do, but I don’t think I’m going to do them. My brain is mush and I feel all sorts of jangled and disconnected. I don’t care about anything right now.

This is what caregiving for the elderly can be like when it gets choppy. My mother is unfailingly sweet. The whole time she was up during the night, she was chirpy and jazzed. She kept greeting me with delight and wanting to go for a drive, get ice cream or just chatter.

The bad part was the next day, when the exhaustion left her confused and unable to function. She was in one of those down moods when she knows that her mind is haywire and she feels demoralized because of it.

But as night came on, she started shifting upwards, ready to roll on into dawn again.

I’ve learned that we can get her past these things. Overcoming the refusals to eat and drink taught me that. It takes a concerted effort and lots of imagination, but it’s possible to flip the switch back into place and get her going again. Right now, I’ve got to re-teach her night and day. Odd as it seems, night and day have been an increasing challenge for quite some time.

I’m not sure why, but she forgets that night is night and then gets upset when other people don’t respond to her in what she thinks is the proper manner. She can go for hours, waking you over and over every minute or so with the same request. It’s usually that she wants to get ready to go to adult day care.

I just dealt with it as best I could. But an all night elderly romper room is too much. We’ve got to flip the switch back. I may ask the doc for sleeping pills, if nothing else works. I hate to do that, but, hey, she can’t go 24/7 for very long. For that matter, neither can I.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve got cotton brain.

 

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

 

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

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.


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