Wayfaring Mama. Caring for Elderly Parents with a Will to Wander.


Yesterday I took a nap.

I woke to my outraged son, wanting to know why I hadn’t answered my phone.

It seems that while I was sleeping, my 89-year-old Mama took off. She wandered the neighborhood until a wonderful neighbor took her in. The only thing Mama could get straight enough to tell her was my phone number.

But I was asleep. The phone was on the bed beside me. Just in case. I vaguely remember dreaming about the phone ringing. But it didn’t wake me. All my life, I’ve slept deep. I guess yesterday, I was sleeping really deep.

Somehow — I’m not sure how — the neighbor managed to contact one of my sons at work. He left his job and — in his own words — drove like the proverbial bat to get to Amah.

Amah, meanwhile, was fine. She was having a chirpy little old lady good time, visiting with the neighbors.

It turns out that Mama has been traveling the neighborhood at night. She’s been getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning and going to neighbor’s houses and getting them up to chat. They bring her home and we don’t know anything about it.

This is my nightmare scenario so far as Mama is concerned. If she starts wandering — and it appears she’s well into her wandering phase — I don’t know how to take care of her.

We’re reconfiguring things as I write. She’s getting a gps necklace. And we’re putting alarms on all the doors alert the police and should even get me awake and moving. We’re also reconfiguring the front door and garage doors so she can’t get out at night. She can go into the back yard all she wants. But not out the front.

I’m also going to sell some property to get the money to hire people to babysit with her when I have to be gone in the evenings. She goes to adult day care — a heaven-sent program that saves lives and money by allowing families to keep their elderly and disabled family members at home and still hold down jobs — during the day. A family member is with her most of the rest of the time.

But, we need someone to babysit once in a while, too. It’s the easiest baby sitting in the world; just dial up the sports channel, get Mama a diet Coke and make sure she doesn’t wander out the front door.

I can’t tell you how much I love Mama. We all do. The whole family is 100% involved in taking care of her. I am not some martyr for Mama who is doing all this alone. My sons do an enormous amount of the Amah care, and they do it cheerfully, lovingly and without complaint. My husband gets into it too.

Mama is a family project of love.

I hope that God gives us many more years with her. I’ve prayed at times when she was sick, asking for more time. But that is in His hands. My main prayer, which I pray fervently and often, is that Mama will be happy and not suffer. I trust her life to God. I know where she’s going when it’s time.

About a week ago, while we were out on Mama’s daily drive and ice cream run, she told me that she loved her “job” (adult day care) and that she enjoyed our drives so much. She took a few laps on her ice cream cone, then smiled. “I’m very happy,” she said.

That’s everything I ever wanted.

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Having a Mama Kind of Time


I’m having a Mama kind of time.

My 88-year-old mother goes through phases. It took me a while to figure out that these were phases, rather than permanent situations. I don’t know what causes them, and I don’t know why they end. But I do know that while they are making their passage I have a hard time balancing with them.

This latest phase is, “I don’t know what to do.”

Here’s how it works.

11 pm

Mama: I don’t know what to do.

Me: What do you mean?

Mama: I don’t know whether they’re picking me up for my job (adult day care) or what.

Me: They’ll be here at their regular time. You just need to go to bed and get some rest so you’re ready to have fun tomorrow.

Mama: Well … OK. But I don’t know what to do.

11:30 pm

Mama: I don’t know what to do.

Me: What do you mean?

Mama: I can’t remember.

Me: It’s Ok. Just go back to bed and get some sleep and it will be ok tomorrow.

Midnight. 2 am, 3 am. 3:30 am, 4 am, and on until she leaves for Adult Day Care

Mama: I don’t know what to do.

Me: What do you mean?

Mama: I’m afraid they won’t pick me up for my job (adult day care) on time.

Me: Don’t worry. I’ll take you if they don’t pick you up. Now just go back to bed and get some sleep.

9 am

Driver for Adult Day Care: Your mother has been calling me since 4 am, wanting me to come pick her up.

2 pm

Director at Adult Day Care: Your Mother called us every few minutes from 5 am on, wanting us to come get her.

3 pm

Mama: I’m home now. I want you to come take me for a drive.

Me: I’m so tired.

Mama: Oh sweetie, you need to stop working so hard and get some sleep.

Me: Yeah. You’re right.

Mama: Now, I want you to take me for a drive.

If I sometimes seem grouchy, absent-minded or just plain goofy, remember this and cut me a little slack. It’s just a phase. It may go on for days, weeks or months, but at some point, Mama will start sleeping through the night again and she will be blissfully unaware that there ever was a time when she didn’t know what to do. I don’t know exactly how it happens, but it does.

This last slow walk with Mama is a surprisingly beautiful time with its own surprises and profound touches of grace. Even when I am groggy and nauseous from lack of sleep, I am still glad that I have her. Contrary to the nonsense our culture teaches us, it is a gift to be old and full of years, both to the people who live it and to the people who take care of them.

Everything I ever needed to know about love, I learned from my parents. I am fortunate indeed that my Mama, even as she wakes me up to the beat of her own internal metronome, is still teaching me.

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Pope Francis to Youth: Grandparents are Vital. Cherish the Elderly.

My kids adore their grandmother.

The word “dote” wouldn’t be too strong to describe their attitude toward her. It’s a mutual doting. She tells me constantly how “brilliant, sweet, generous and good” they are. They, in turn, seem to not mind one bit doing the yeoman labors of making sure she takes her medicine, gets her meals and is constantly looked after.

Caring for an elderly parent is not all that difficult when the grandkids stop their rounds of work, dates and classwork to take on far more than their fair share of the tending. It amuses me no end that the first person they introduce their girls to is my mother. She always knows all about their date lives, while I am usually far behind on the information curve.

They feel so strongly about their grandmother, that when I tried to take on more of her care — in the mistaken idea that I was lifting  a burden off them — they protested loud and long.

I felt much the same about my own grandmother. Grandparents are a healthy relief from the intensity of the parent-child relationship. They give a safe place for kids to spread their wings in the relatively low-key and tolerant atmosphere of adoring grandparents. I remember once my mother told me “we don’t do homework at my house,” when I asked her to make sure the boys did some sort of schoolwork that needed doing at the time. I don’t remember if my lower jaw hit the floor or not, but I do remember the amusement I felt when she said that.

I had the urge to tap her on the forehead and ask, “Mama, are you in there?”

This clearly was not the same woman who had raised me.

And, of course, that was true. She wasn’t the same woman who had raised me. At that point, I was the one on the hot seat. I was the parent with the task of shaping these babies of mine into responsible, productive adults who could earn their living and found families of their own one day.

My mother had done her time in the parental labor yard, and now she was deep into that other role of Grandparent. It was not her job to make sure they did their homework, and she wasn’t going to do it. Her job was to adore them and give them the unalloyed love and adoration that only a grandparent can.

Judging by their attitude today, when she’s a little bit dotty and a whole lot in need of unalloyed love and adoration herself, she did well.

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Pope Francis spoke of this beautiful and unique contribution that grandparents make to the welfare of their grandchildren yesterday, on the feast of Joachim and Anna, who were Jesus’ grandparents. We often think of Joseph, Mary and Jesus as a totally isolated unit. But in truth, they existed within a community of relations and kinsmen, as do people in the Middle East, even today.

Scriptures mention this in the story of Jesus getting separated from Mary and Joseph when He stayed back to teach at the Temple when He was 12. There are oblique mentions of it later in His life when the Scriptures reference His mother’s relations, as well as His “brothers,” which is to say His kinsmen. Again, even today in the Middle East, people call their kinsmen, including cousins and more distant relations, “brothers.”

Sts anne et joachim

We don’t have specific information about how Joachim and Anna lived out their grandparent role in Jesus’ life, but since God had chosen to be born to this particular girl who was part of this particular family, I think it’s a good guess that they did it well. After all, these were the people who raised Our Lady. That’s a powerful testament to their child-rearing abilities.

Pope Francis emphasized on the flight from Rome to Rio earlier this week that the elderly are as important to the future of the Church as the young. There is a symmetry to life and this Latin American pope seems well aware of it. Traditional families, based on a mother and a father, and backed up with the loving help and support of the generation before them, are the best, most stable and healthy way to nurture and guide children from birth to adulthood.

People who grow up in this environment have learned the value of all people at various stages of life by seeing that value acted out in their own families. They’ve learned love by being loved. They acquired stability by growing up in stable homes. They’ve been supported, first by their parents and then by their grandparents who could pitch in and broaden their experiences and also fill the gaps in their experience that parents could not reach.

I had many of the most profoundly shaping conversations of my childhood with my grandmother. She had time to just sit and listen to my childish rambles that my mother and father did not. She was removed from the pressures of getting it all done and could give me her undivided attention for hours at a time. I basked and flowered in the soft sunlight of this attention.

My mother did the same thing for my kids. And now, just as I adored my grandmother, they adore her.

My youngest son drives a pick-up that sits high off the ground. When he wants to take his 88-year-old Amah out for a spin, he picks her up like she weighs no more than a potato chip and lifts her onto the seat. Then, off they go on a ramble.

She invariably comes back all aglow, telling me “that boy is the sweetest thing.”

I was setting up some work on my house yesterday. The lady who took my order was here for a while, measuring and writing down the particulars. I got calls from my kids who were at work and my mother who was at adult day care all through my discussion with this lady. I didn’t think anything about it. They call me all the time.


But as we were winding up our discussion the lady taking the order said, “Do you know how blessed you are?”

I said yes. And I do know. But it was lovely to have her remind me.

The generations, young to old, are good. The Holy Father is right: We should cherish the elderly, for they are vital to us and our well-being.

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My Father’s Keeper

This is for those of you who have the blessing of caring for your elderly fathers. They are not a burden. They are a blessing.

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