There are certain roles and callings for which you can prepare yourself. You can study to become a teacher or a plumber or a banker. You can prepare for marriage and parenthood. You can learn how to manage and maintain your house. But sometimes roles are thrust on you which you never anticipated. For example, I never imagined nor intended to be divorced, but once I was, I became a resource and reference for other women equally stunned by that circumstance and I was able to help them through the maze of decisions to be made.
Neither did I imagine I would ever be faced with helping my mother—my highly educated, professional, physically fit, vibrant, impeccable, force-of-nature mother—through dementia, but for the last several years—the last two being the most challenging—that is exactly what I have been called upon to deal with. Helping others by sharing what I have learned has become a ministry of sorts and I feel compelled to pass on what I have learned, just as friends and advisers, without whom I would have been utterly lost, have helped me.
For the next few weeks, I’m going to share this journey. I will include some facts and incidents which would mortify my mother, if she: 1) had any idea or recollection of the behavior; and 2) had any idea I was sharing them publicly.
But dementia is an elusive culprit and it is my hope I can help you recognize warning signs and get out ahead of the difficulties you may face with your loved ones.
Some of these stories will be jarring, so I want to make it clear I intend no disrespect to my mother. My admiration of her remains unabated.
Here’s her story:
My parents were bright, active and vibrant well into their late 70’s. They were both in good health and involved in nourishing social circles. They were active in their church. My mother taught Sunday School for as long as I could remember—indeed, growing up, I do not recall a time when she was not teaching Sunday School—and sang in the church choir long after, with the use of a cane, she could hardly get up and down the steps of the platform.
They were active in a “senior saint” ministry called Joyful Heirs, which met once a month on Saturday mornings. They organized activities, planned programs, called members on their birthdays, often ministering to people younger than they were. Though Nana [this is the name I will use, because this is how our family always refers to her] often felt her age and joked about growing older, she resisted aging with teeth and fists clenched. She had a standing joke. When people asked how she was, she would reply: “Okay, except for my O-L-D.” They would ask what that meant. She would respond: “What does it spell?” And then laugh uproariously every single time she told the story or retold me how she had told someone else.
While my parents were in their home together, I had no need to worry about either of them. My father, Carl, had the keenest mind of anyone I ever knew, and he showed no signs of diminishing mental acumen. They had made good solid financial decisions throughout their marriage. Their home was paid for. Repairs had been made and kept up-to-date. They enjoyed yardwork, had good neighbors, who helped out when needed, and remained active in their local church.
They enjoyed eating out and joining me and my children and their spouses for celebrations of holidays and birthdays. Eventually, both my parents needed help with walking, resorting to canes. My mother saw my father through a broken hip and later hip replacement and a heart attack. Until 2008, when they were both 79, there were no “danger signs” that I would have to intervene on their behalf.
Then in early April 2008, Nana called to say she was taking my father to the hospital. He was having trouble breathing and was not improving. When I arrived at the hospital, my father was already on oxygen and looking gray. Pneumonia. Over the next three weeks he declined steadily. He was too frail for any tests to be conducted. A heavy smoker for years (he had finally quit sometime after I married in the late 70’s), his lungs were compromised and weak. Oxygen flow was increased, but there was no improvement.
One day after I left school and drove straight to the hospital to visit, my father and I were alone in his room. He knew he was not going to leave the hospital and I did not try to dissuade him. He said, “You’ll need to take care of your mama. Don’t let her spend all the money.”
After two weeks, my father was moved into ICU. He languished another week before he passed away on April 21st. And there I was, having made a promise to my father to take care of my mother, with a grieving widow in my care.
[To be continued]
Thanks for your wonderful reflections of this journey, Holly. Love your writing, and having an elderly mother, this is so relevant. It is also relevant because my wife and I are heading into those sunset years, and we hope we can leave a meaningful and inspiring legacy for our two adult children.