Friday, December 25, 2009

Five Golden .... (what are they again?)

Our family has always loved to sing.
From the time I can remember my Mom, Dad, sister and I would huddle around a phone receiver on Christmas Eve calling family and friends singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." As our parents aged, my sister and I received a number of calls from people now singing to us. They didn't want the tradition to end.
Last year we started a new one. We're down to just six of us for Christmas eve dinner, my sister and her family, my Mom and I. We don't place calls anymore, but we do take time after dinner to sing carols. My mom just beams. Music is truly her favorite thing in life.
Blame it on the egg nog (okay wine), we decided to get crafty last year and assign each family member a section or two from the 12 Days of Christmas -- my Mom insisted on carrying out the prestigious "five golden rings" line.
We'd go around the room, each of us crooning out our "day", and each time we'd come to my Mom, she'd act surprised, then catch on that it was her turn and belt out "Five... Golden... HENS!" Every time! We'd laugh, remind her it's rings, she'd do a practice, "Five, Golden, Rings" then we'd start up a new round, the song carried it's way back to my Mom, she'd react in surprise and belt out yet again, "Five Golden HENS"!
This year the surprise would be on my sister and her family. Our caregiver bought my Mom the 12 Days of Christmas book. She's been practicing the entire thing over and over since Thanksgiving.
I couldn't wait for the new annual tradition to start last night. What a surprise my Mom would deliver. She's knows the entire song cold now.
We were each assigned a day, my Mom once again waited to be honored with the cherished "five golden rings" line. The song started up and my Mom actually joined in on all the days just as I expected, the lyrics wound their way around the room and ultimately came to my Mom for her big solo, she smiled a grin and launched into her lines: "Five.... Golden.... HENS"!!

The Jokes on Me!

Thinking my Mom needed a little dose of the spirit of giving, rather than just getting, I set up a little Christmas eve shopping expedition.

Together we constructed a list which included my sister, her husband and two girls, myself, two dogs and the cat. My Mom asked twice why she wasn't on the list. I promised repeatedly that she'd be receiving gifts, but in exchange she also had to buy for others.

I even offered to provide the money to buy the gifts, showing her a nice crisp twenty. I knew better than to give it to her, she'd never let go. Instead the deal was the bill would remain in my wallet until we hit the cash register.

The first choice was to head toward the dollar store -- I thought it would be a riot to see what she might choose for her clan and it would be right in her price range. I also held extreme concern that the selections might be too slim so close to Christmas which could ruin the whole idea. Instead we redirected toward Walgreen's. Surely they'd have something for everyone. And they did, much more than I expected.

My Mom got her hands on the handle of that shopping cart and just like Frosty when the hat was placed upon his head, began to come to life. Completely in the spirit of giving, my Mom ripped through that store, her selections spot on for each recipient, and, of course, way over the dollar store budget! (Keep in mind I had already made her "real" purchases, these were supposed to be for fun.)

Staring at her checklist she thought a coat might be nice for my sister. I explained that Walgreens probably wouldn't be the place for something like that, but over my shoulder she managed to spot a suitable back up gift, a super soft, beautiful light blue bathrobe. One aisle over, she broke into laughter as she choose a U of M "snuggie" for her son-in-law, then after bawking over makeup for her granddaughters, she instead sought out really cool bath kits. She had it all sewn up in less than a half hour. Complete with small toys for the dogs and cat.

We hit the check out where all the Christmas nick knacks caught her eye, including a pile of cheesy Santa hats. "C'mon," she said with a twinkle in her eye, "let's each get one and wear them all day!" She was practically Mrs. Claus by now.

I am soooo not a Santa hat type. I don't think I've ever worn one, and thought I never would.

"They're only 2.99," she continued her plea. By now she had hers half cocked on her head and offered another to me. How could I refuse?

I placed it over my pony tail and she howled. "You have the hook sticking out the top," she laughed. "You do too," I said. She laughed harder. The sales clerk rang up our order, which totalled at least four times the initial budget. Crumb, we should have gone to the dollar store, I thought to myself. Not for the reason you'd expect, not because of the dollar damage she tallied in such a short outing, but the silly hats. I really doubted the dollar store carried Santa hats. I wouldn't have been forced to wear one. Talk about a scrooge. I really wanted nothing to do with that hat, but she was right, it was only 2.99 -- pennies compared to the rest of her purchases. I let her throw them in the pile, even though I had no intention of wearing it outside the store.

The clerk took our money and cut the tags off our hats which my Mom, yes, insisted we wear out of the store. Okay, I'd leave it on one moment longer. No one seemed to be watching, except my Mom who was now a little jealous that I wore mine better than she did. She pulled down the passenger side mirror to give her hat a little tilt, and as she did, she began singing her traditional "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."

It was the very song she sang every year while decorating the house since the time we were small kids. Wow, what a throw back. It was awesome and well worth any minor humiliation of wearing a silly red hat. Funny how life can twist things around. I was trying to re-teach my Mom about the gift of giving, and in the end, she placed a hat on our heads that made me come to life with Christmas spirit.

Just as she wished, we wore those hats the rest of the day, singing carols all the way home!

Wearing them may even become a new Mom and Mary tradition.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Is Anything in Life Really Free?

My Mom loves junk mail. She could literally sit with a good offer and read it over and over again for an entire day. In fact, as I write this she is enthusiastically reading me an offer for a magazine subscription which includes a free garden issue. And... if we reply by November 10th, a free tote bag!
She reads the offer better than the announcer on any game show. Very convincing.
Her two favorite phrases to really play up when she comes across them, "that's right... you could win (fill in the blank depending on the offer)" and "call one, eight hundred (add numbers depending on the offer.)" She very deliberately enunciates each digit to ensure we don't mis-dial. They could literally hire her at a voice over agency.

She's on page two now, they've upped the ante -- if you send the preview card today you not only receive the garden issue and tote bag, but one "best ever issue" and four free special issues. "Well, can I get my tote bag today?" she just asked emphatically. I think she's finally figured out I hold the purse strings. I told her she needed to prove to me it's not a scam. Mistake! She just started reading the entire four page mailing piece. Again. From the top! She pauses after each section to say "what do you think of that?" Her way of luring me in. She's super impressed each time she notices that letter has her name on it. That for sure adds credibility. She just came across the tote bag offer for the 400th time and experienced the same joyful surprise as she did round one. "Wow! Are we getting all that?!" Followed by "I've never had a tote bag like that." Again, showmanship, purely trying to win me over.

During a recent business trip, our caregiver called and said my Mom wouldn't let up on trying to book a free lasik eye exam. Yep, I said, last week it was a storm door consultation (we live in a condo), and the week before that teeth whitening. Sneak the material away from her as soon as you can before the irritation becomes unbearable, I advised.

Sometimes I use the enthusiasm and enclosed response card as an opportunity to get her to work on her writing skills. I have her fill in the name and address section. Her hand does not cooperate with her brain very often, so I have to find several response cards from any kind of offer before we start to fill one in. She gets really worried or distraught if she makes a mistake, concerned it may jeopardize the offer. By having extras on hand we can keep trying to get it right.
Other times, she'll express concern over what day it is so she doesn't miss the deadline. On those occasions I grab a calendar and have her figure out how many days until the offer ends.
They're all great activities and help keep her mind sharp. She's cutting out the response card right now. I might actually let her send this one in. We'll enjoy the magazine and she is really over the top with that cheap little tote.

I can't help but think that allowing this indulgence flies in the face of the bits of wisdom she used to impart on me when I was young and wanted something for nothing -- which I think went ever so cleverly, "you can't get something for nothing." In this case, she keeps missing the part that says -- "all with your paid subscription." And the advertisers don't make it at all that clear exactly how much that is. She'd also put us off by telling us that whatever we wanted was "probably junk." Sometimes it's okay to break the rules and risk getting taken. My Mom also used to caution often that "there are no free rides in life." While I'm old enough now to know that's definitely true, I guarantee you that the ride from filling out the postpaid card to dropping it off at the mail box will be pretty fun! What more can you ask from life?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snippets from Tonight...

My Mom's been having a lot of difficulty remembering words for objects lately, so we've started playing a little game called "what's that."
I point in rapid fire to things and she calls out "cup", "plate", "fork", "hat", "flowers"...
It's not her fault that she doesn't have the opportunity to use much vocabulary these days. I figure it's my job to help her retain key words for as long as possible.

I'm careful to approach the activity when she's in a playful mood and it won't hurt her feelings for being demeaning. Tonight during dinner I learned I also have to watch out for her creating her own vocabulary from the Land of Oz to compensate for her shortcomings.
She confidently told me tonight that the lamp was a "switzer" and her brand new reclining chair a "booglie." When I asked if she was sure the thing you sit on is called a booglie, she said, "c'mon, everyone knows that." I suggested that maybe it was a "chair", then she acted like I was a simpleton and said she would call it a "recliner." She pulled the tougher word out of thin air.
Same with "glasses" when under fire she called them "spectacles."

On a second note, Skinny Winnie ate a great dinner tonight, or so I thought. We had lasagna. Did I mention the dogs and cat love having my Mom live here? When I'm not looking, she evidently provides them with a bountiful buffet. (see attached photo, "Bug Kitty Busted". I thought only Garfield liked lasagna...)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To Share ... or Not .

We were going to pay a quick visit to my sister and her daughters the other day. I stopped at a gas station on the way and ran in to buy two cheap packs of some type of fruity tooty gum for my Mom to give her granddaughters as a gift.
I sometimes think the girls are a little distant around my aging Mom and I'm not beyond bribery to try and bridge that gap.
I hopped back in the car with the two bright pink and yellow packages and handed them to my Mom, explaining that she could give them as a gift to the girls.
"That's exactly what I wanted," she said with a pout. Somehow she had transformed from 87 to 2 during my three minutes in the store.
"This is fruity gum, Mom. You don't even chew gum," I said.
"Yes I do." She now grew a little huffy. I couldn't hold back a laugh. She was pouting like a toddler and even trying to shed a few tears. My laughing really set her off.
"What? This is exactly what I wanted..." She was already holding the packs, but she scooped them in closer and pulled them possessively to her chest. There was NO way she was handing them off to anyone.
The hilarious interaction went on for a good few minutes. Her logic too silly to recall accurately. To end the stand off, I offered to buy her a pack of gum on the way home, which she mistook as right that minute.
"Well..." she uttered just one word in absolute defiance, now sounding more like a sassy teenager.
I pulled out, letting her, for the moment, think she could keep the gum she already had. It's one of those times Alzheimer's plays in your favor. By the time I hit the main road, all would likely be forgotten. My Mom is usually generous to a fault. When we were young everything went to her daughters first. That very night at dinner she offered me a bite of her main course and dessert. Fairly disgusting, but more in line with her normally generous heart than the present moment where a mutiny was about to erupt over bubble gum.

12-year-old Meghan ran out to the drive to greet us. I pried one pack free from her fingers and said "look what your Grandma got you!" Meghan grabbed the gum and gave my Mom a thank you hug. (See, these little dollar investments can really payoff!) Grandma was so thrilled with the smile and hug that she barely noticed the switcheroo when the gum transferred from her hand to Meghan's. She also still had the remaining pack to clutch.
As we entered the house, I saw my Mom tighten her grip on the gift. I warned 8-year-old Emily that Grandma may have a little difficulty handing over the surprise. My sister said the girls could share one pack and Mom could keep the other, but I insisted she needed to learn, or re-learn how to share.
"What, so she can remember it for a few minutes?" my sister asked. Nicely, not snotty. She's a mom herself and one of many that caution me constantly to pick my battles. (I also won't give in and let her wear white socks with black shoes. Not even in the house. Someday, from heaven, she'll thank me for that.)
To me, sharing was a war worth waging, but I proceeded with tact. Turning the gift giving into a game would surely work.
"Mom, didn't you get Emily something really special today??? I bet she's dying to see it."
My Mom's face lit up. She loves being the center of attention these days. This gave her a stage to unveil the surprise. She pulled her hand up from the table, hiding the packet under her palm and said to Emily, "Do you wonder what I have here?" She bought into the game one-thousand percent. "Do you think this surprise might be for you?" My Mom's face grew more and more animated and Emily giggled her head off in anticipation. We were all having a riot over the gum hand off. Until... the lead in to the silly surprise, the suspense, took so long to build that my Mom forgot who the recipient was. When she finally revealed the brightly colored pack of gum she proclaimed, "look what I got!"
We all burst into a whole new round of hysterics, including my Mom who loves a good time. "No Mom, that was supposed to be for Emily."
Emily now laughed as if she was being tickled to death. Meghan howled from the sidelines. Their Grandma was being super silly and they loved it. Ultimately, my Mom returned to being the amazing woman we all know and love as she finally, generously handed over the simple little gift to her granddaughter with pride. "Here, this is for you."
Emily grinned back at her Grandma with an ear to ear smile and reciprocated with a big hug.

I probably should be a little ashamed at admitting openly that I spent a dollar to generate a couple of genuine hugs. But when your heart is in the right place, it always works out. Not giving in to the toddler tantrum and coaching my Mom to overcome the dementia induced personality change, led to an amazing surprise of its own. The laughter we shared that day created a true bonding moment, a memory that will likely last a lifetime.

Sitting in the kitchen sharing a huge laugh with Grandma ... that's priceless.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Great Escapes -- Yes, Plural!

We were at a Labor Day cook out this summer and one of my neighbors suggested getting some type of an ID bracelet or necklace for my Mom. She recounted the tale of getting the all too frightening call from the Sheriff's office while she was at work. Her Mom, also an Alzheimer's victim, took a walk one afternoon and couldn't find her way home. In this day and age no one neighbor could definitively identify the older woman, nor did they know the full name of her daughter, but several of them pulled together enough facts to help the Sheriff's department identify the hospital where the daughter worked. The deputy called human resources and asked how many of their nurses lived in this particular city and had a mother suffering from dementia. Luckily, the correct contact information was retrieved and mother and daughter were safely reunited.

I had two immediate responses to the story -- great idea and... my Mom is so lazy, she'd never get up off the couch to go for the walk in the first place. I routinely leave her home for an hour or two while I ride or run to the grocery store. She's literally in the exact same position as I left her when I get home. Even though she won't admit to her age, there are certain things about retirement she takes quite seriously. Lounging tops the list. (Just so I don't seem too reckless, I leave her with the phone and call periodically to check in on her.)
Nonetheless, I went on line the very next day to order some type of ID. Instinct yelped that it was a really good idea. The problem was, once it came down to actually placing the order, I waffled. We never got my Mom one of those emergency alert necklaces because she'd surely keep forgetting its purpose, play with it and accidentally alert emergency crews hourly until they'd discontinue the service. Keeping a necklace or bracelet in place didn't seem any more viable. So, I put the order on hold while I tried to concoct a solution.

Up until that point I had only lost her twice. If you could even use the term "lost". Once I was leading the front of a shopping cart at Kohl's while she pushed. I went to turn the corner and glanced back to see she was no longer at the helm. She had stopped to look at an outfit 100-feet back and I ambled along at her usual pace never noticing she wasn't with me. On the next occurrence I did the exact same thing, this time with her walker. We were at a county fair. She had stopped to oogle at a baby and I kept right on going with the cart. This time I had an audience, a long line of people waiting to buy corn dogs. A roar of laughter led me to turn around to once again notice she was missing. It turned out the crowd was laughing at me. Or rather at us, she played the whole deal up with theatrics, waving and yelling "Here I am! Over here!"

The latest incident wasn't so funny. I went for a very short errand and as I pulled up the boulevard heading toward home I saw a group of women gathered down the street on the sidewalk. I noticed one had on the exact sweatsuit my Mom had on earlier that day. I zeroed in a little closer and realized ... it was my Mom! Here's the crazy part, I didn't panic, not yet. She was laughing and interacting with the women and it took me back. She looked just like my very social Mom from 20 years ago. It was actually really touching. Then I noticed the looks on the other women's faces. Different story. Complete distress. I squealed the car up to the curb rolled down the window and playfully yelled "What are you doing all the way down here?!" My approach was to keep the mood light. Next I noticed the huge expanse of pavement that woman covered to reach that spot on the sidewalk (strange what the mind observes even during a would-be traumatic situation.) I was really impressed. She made it almost 2 city blocks and without her walker! Then I looked back at the stretch of cement and almost passed out. She also did it, thank God, without a fall. I can only credit Guardian Angels. There's no way she should have made it that far without falling and cracking her head open or breaking half the bones in her little frail body. Shaking like a leaf now, I jumped out of the car and raced to her aid. The delayed concern was too much (or far too little) for one of the woman. She began questioning who I was and told me I'd have to wait for the Sheriff's department. They'd probably want to question me, she said. In other words she was accusing me of being a bad mom and not ready to put my Mom back in my custody quite so easily.
Turns out the sheriff deputy's were great and my friends and family even better. My sister reminded me of the time she received a 6:40 am doorbell wake up call. A school bus driver asked if the 2-year-old standing on the porch was her daughter. My niece had unlocked the deadbolt and regular lock all on her own and went out for an early morning stroll.

I really appreciated the support, but the heebie jeebies over the escape grew throughout the night. The next morning I hit Babies R Us and bought childproof door locks and a baby gate. We're now on lock down. If I go out, my Mom's either left with a caregiver or back to riding shot gun. And even that level of supervision isn't always good enough these days.

The credit (I'm trying to keep it positive) goes to the adult day care program. Now that she attends regularly, she has a whole new level of energy. On the flip side, her brain hasn't quite figured out how to channel the increased level of stimulation. Particularly on the days she attends the center, she becomes an outright jumping bean and I have my hands full. She literally can't sit still.

She really seems to enjoy occasional trips to the barn, so I thought we could keep those on the agenda. Maybe not. With her new found energy, she began getting out of the car to come out to the ring to be part of the action. I tried explaining that she didn't like the smell of horses, that it was dangerous and reminded her that she had always enjoyed just watching, she really wasn't ready to actually ride. Then, in case she didn't understand my logic, I took matters into my own hands and followed the brilliant advice of a good friend. I began placing her in the back seat.

I told her it was like a limo -- lots of room, an armrest for her drink and treats, even a reclining seat back. The truth was, it had childproof locks. They worked great, once or twice. Until she decided to crawl out the window. She was quite a Tom Boy as a kid. Luckily, the alarm sounded and I ran over before she had much more than her head poking out the window. She said she just wanted to say "hi." Satisfied with a little attention, she went back to reading and I went back to my horse. Ten minutes later the alarm sounded again. I ran back over and couldn't believe my eyes. She evidently remembered the window trick didn't work, this time she was heading out the sunroof! She was standing, or should I say teetering, on the back seat, reaching her right foot toward the center console, where I surmised she planned to hoist her bony body up and out the sunroof. (Or, in an even scarier scenario, we aren't positive she wasn't trying to slide into the driver's seat.) Either way, she was on the move and I once again found myself with visions of her cracking her head open. Even when I reached her side, she was far from being in the clear from serious injury. Easing her back down into the seat safely was no easy task. It's a 3-foot drop from the top of the console to the floor of the back seat. She's far from stable.

It was time to pack it in. I was a little frustrated, but held no serious hard feelings. I wasn't trying to ride at any cost. Up until this point, she really had enjoyed coming to the barn as a spectator sport. Now that I think about it, my once super active Mom has been reduced to mere spectator status in general since dementia crawled into her life almost 10 years ago. How cool that she now wants to go back to participating. The problem is going to be finding the right time and place. I don't want to encourage any more great escapes. I'm already making sure she has plenty of activities of her own to keep her busy and when I need my own escape from the burdens of caregiving, I pledge to find a SAFE way to keep her occupied.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Revisiting the Best of Childhood!

My Mom's new pet name for me is Amelia Bedelia. For those of you who don't know, she's a daffy character from "An I Can Read" children's book series. Particularly if I ask her to do something she doesn't want to do, I hear "Okay Amelia Bedelia," sarcastically in response. Isn't it crazy she can remember a name like that from total recall?! Maybe not, if you consider she has probably read the book about 142 times since July.

It started during a trip to my sister's house this summer. My Mom is a voracious reader, but sadly with dementia, long-term comprehension just isn't there. My sister gave her a few children's books and other than a little initial embarrassment, they've proven to be a big hit. I'd personally risk damaging her dignity just a bit to see the joy on her face as she laughs out loud and even repeats funny lines as she reads now. It really beats coming into a room to find her back to reading the copy right page on an adult novel for the 10th or 12th time. (Authors and illustrators would be pleased to know she may not get caught up on the copyright page anymore, but she still reads every single word from cover to cover, including the full title page as many times as it appears.)

I'm not only a writer, but I love to read too. Why then, did it take me until tonight to realize the gold mine of an opportunity we have here?! We can go back and read ALL of my favorite childhood classics! Here I've had her in the big print section of the library and book store... We're moving over to the children's section toot sweet. (meaning tomorrow) I can't wait! The epiphany came after visiting a literary agent's blog site tonight. She asked for requests from readers of favorite children's books to read on vacation.

The list was sooooo awesome, I'll share a few: Pippi Longstocking (okay, that came from me. I dressed up as Pippi for Halloween in 3rd grade and even though the costume was brilliant -- right down to a stuffed monkey on my shoulder, perched right below braids held high with wire, no one knew who I was ... the plight of a bookworm! I was Laura Ingalls in 2nd grade. That year everyone said "Oh, a prairie girl." They didn't have a clue on that one either.) Ramona the Pest, Anne of Green Gables, James and the Giant Peach, one that's new to me: The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clark, and one that I think is dear to me: Magic Elizabeth by Norm Kassirer (That's if my own memory isn't failing. I ordered this tonight -- can't wait to find out if the magical escape is just as exciting 30+ years later!)

Oh, and I'm adding Ben and Me by Robert Lawson -- hearing all about Ben Franklin from the perspective of a mouse just blew me away in second grade. I'm sure my Mom, as she struggles to survive in a household with two dogs, a cat and two horses, will find some kind of humor in that one.

I'll end with my Mom's all time favorites. Absolute number one is Little Women, followed by The Bobbsey Twins, and when we came along, Are You There God It's Me Margaret by Judy Bloom. Can you picture my late in life, flat as a pancake, grey haired mother recreating "I must, I must, I must increase my bust," for anyone that would watch and listen?
Especially given her let's call it "small stature" in the chest area, she just thought that was the funniest line ever when the book came out. Even more than the national craze it generated. I was originally thinking at the age of 87 I'd leave the coming into womanhood book off the list, but she's still rather obsessed with being less than endowed, so what the heck, bring it on! Let's see if that line still strikes her funny. And if it does, she can recite it with full arm motions and all as much as she wants -- in my opinion, it's never too late to try!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Certain Things are Apparently Unforgettable (written January 2009)

I knew the transition of moving from Florida to Michigan would be confusing for my Mom. Daily I remind her that she now lives with me. Nightly I remind her that the bedroom is in the opposite direction. I honestly thought that after a while she'd catch on and accept her new surroundings. Well, she's pretty content -- but, as I say repeatedly, she's yet to find the bedroom or bathroom on her own.

In passing discussions, I've agreed with others that anything new in her life will be difficult for my Mom to remember. She seems to have much more trouble with short-term memory than long-term. Makes sense to me. Or at least it did, until... we bought a new pair of white slippers!

They hung on the clearance rack at Target. $1.99 for a terry cloth pair of slippers with poms as tassels. A total bargain, but super bad idea for a lady that has no peripheral vision and trouble walking. They didn't seem all that safe.

My Mom was beyond enamoured with both the slippers and the bargain. I bought them. I figured we'd get them home, she'd go to bed, I'd throw them out and we'd all walk safely into the next day. I was sooooo wrong. First, she had to sleep with the slippers. Under her pillow. The next morning she had them on before she even thought about stretching out of the bed. We had to admire them throughout the day while she tilted her foot to and fro. It was hilarious. (And I guess not that unexpected. Friends and family call me "Imelda" for my shoe collection, the truth is they should call me "Wyn." Pre-kids, my Mom was known as quite the clothes horse and she still is. More on that in a different entry....)

The slippers remained a hit for two full days when an all out tragedy struck (Luckily not a safety issue, she walks in them just fine.): one of the cheap $1.99 poms fell off, knocking that new shoe smile right off my Mom's face. She was devastated. Luckily I still had the sewing kit she gave me as a gift long ago. To my surprise she sewed that pom back on by herself. I was floured.

And it didn't end there. For the next two weeks wherever we went she recounted the story of her new slippers. In great detail she'd explain how she found them on sale, how they used to have two poms, then one fell off and she sewed it back on. (That pom stuck, but another fell off and we never found it.) So she'd end the story by explaining the loss of yet another pom and how she cut one off so now each slipper has one pom.

Those damn slippers have now become my greatest nemesis and my greatest joy. As you can see by the photo she still sleeps with them often, now evidently secure enough to leave them on top of the pillow. They're practically worn thin. Every time I see them on her size 9 feet I have to chuckle. I think she loves them more than me. I've bought replacement slippers and she'll wear them, but she'll always check to make sure the white ones are still in sight. "Those are mine," she says.

She doesn't have to worry about them going anywhere. I have a secret plan to someday let her wear them in her final resting spot. They not only brought her a ton of joy in her new life in Michigan, but they serve as a great reminder to me, as her caregiver, to always give her the benefit that she's mentally not as far gone as I sometimes might think.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Memories... (written April 2008)

One of the number one things people ask me is if my Mom remembers that my Dad died. The answer is yes. Always. For some odd reason, the woman, who has yet to find the bedroom or bathroom in her new home, has never forgotten that my Dad died. I'm so thankful for that. We only had to tell her once. Not one other reminder.

She genuinely seemed to understand the funeral proceedings. She mourned and acted every bit a grieving wife. It's the first time ever I didn't want to curse this horrible disease of Alzheimer's. Her brain allowed her to absorb and react to my Dad's death. For a little while anyway. Then her fragile mind healed the pain almost instantaneously, tucking it away in a distant memory.

The situation surrounding his passing now changes dramatically depending on when the topic is discussed. First, she seems to think it happened a long time ago, not last month. She tragically recounts that he died "so young." If you didn't know, he was 92. And finally, she also tells how he "suffered for so long," which also really wasn't the case. He had lost a lot of weight in the last two years and went downhill with weakness in the weeks before his death, but not in the tragic way she'd have you believe.

Sometimes I'm not even positive whether she's referring to my Dad or hers... Although her Dad also led a fairly long life and from what I can remember, didn't suffer a long illness either. I'm really not sure where the drama comes from.

Once in a while I'll remind my Mom that her husband was 92 and lived a long full life, but for the most part I just let the facts free flow wherever her mind wants to take them. It doesn't seem so important that she remember each and every detail over the death of the love of her life, but rather that we keep memories of him alive. It's also encouraging that she accepts her life now and where it's going. So far she's coping really well. I couldn't ask for more.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I'm So Not a Saint (written February 2009)

I called my sister this morning and told her she could pick her Mother up from the Pontiac Homeless Shelter. It was the first really bad day with my Mom and I was through. Just like that. I didn't even have the patience to enroll her in a facility, the paperwork would have taken much too long. A curbside drop off at a temporary safe haven was all I could handle. I figured someone would help her inside. My sister would get there when she could.

One of the most awkward conversations about caring for my Mom is when people tell me I'm a saint. It happens a lot. I wish it were true. I mean just about anyone would like a free ticket into heaven, right? All along I've said I'm not that amazing. Today I proved it. One bad day and seriously, I quit.

When you hear what pushed me over the edge, have a tissue ready -- not because it's sad, pathetic or heart wrenching -- no, it was so ridiculous it made my sister cry laughing.

We were standing in the bathroom and I gave my Mom a squirt of Dial soap to wash her hands, that ingrate looked at me with absolute disdain and said "Thanks big spender." I'll admit, I only gave her a dab, but that's all she can handle. If I gave her any more she'd never be able to rinse the suds off. That was it. The last straw. The audacity. After all I'd done for her. I gave her the entire bottle, told her to take as much as she wanted (it had 25% extra) and I stormed out. She could go inflict her cruel comments on someone else. The minute I uttered the story out loud, I broke into hysterical laughter. I enjoyed the comic relief, but it didn't change the situation, I was still fed up and my Mom could move out.

The big spender line was the final straw. The truth is frustration had been mounting for over a week. I just didn't recognize the severity until I snapped. My Mom suffers from recurring bladder infections. They are very common in the elderly and very frustrating. First, older people do not show signs of fever, blood in the urine or any other typical symptoms of infection. Instead, they show you their alter ego. A 180-degree change in personality. So my happy go lucky Mom becomes obstinate and ornery. The antibiotics can sometimes make her paranoid, even more disoriented than usual and this week gave her insomnia. That woman was up all night every night and getting into everything. I left her alone for an hour one night thinking if she was bored she just might fall asleep. Oh no, I came in to find her fully clothed, seven layers deep! Seven layers of shirts and six or seven layers of pants all piled on her skinny little body. A nice mix of pajamas and street clothes. The next night she locked herself in the bedroom. I found myself at 3:40 am, laying outside the door in misery, coaching her on how to find the light switch in the pitch dark room, then how to unlock the door. I watched the sun rise two mornings in a row, as she finally fell to sleep.

Desperate to reclaim a schedule, I didn't let her sleep long. I went back in at 10 am to rouse her and wow did that lead to all out fights. I wish the blog had sound effects. Imagine "Get out!" in an Exorcist type tone. And an angry "Leave me alone!"
When she finally gets out of bed, she turns her nose up at every meal, thinks every outfit is ugly and throws "I won't" tantrums that could rival a terrible two's toddler.

So, in my defense, it's been a long, painful week emotionally and physically. But today's the first day I'm really mad. And even though I've claimed all along that I'm no angel, I'm a little shocked at my over the top reaction. Here it is, the first really bad day and I'm not only throwing in the towel, but I'm stuffing it into a Molotov cocktail, ready to let the whole situation explode!

(September 2009 note: I've now survived six bouts with bladder infections. And I mean "survived." For us, they by far present the most challenging obstacles in our mother/daughter relationship. And we've done it without a trip to the homeless shelter. I may not be a saint, but that's truly miracle!)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Age ... Who's Counting?? (written May 2008)

"Get me out of here -- you know I can't stand old people and cripples!" -- I experienced my first utter humiliation after becoming a Mom to My Mom. We went for a simple visit to the adult day care center at the Older Persons Center in Rochester, MI. Supposedly one of the top rated facilities in the country. My normally demure Mother did not wait until we had a private minute, she robustly vocalized this statement loudly in front of the director of the program, the staff and most mortifying of all, the participants! I was embarrassed, disgraced and tried to remember what I had done to her as toddler that perhaps led to this retribution.

I also wondered what happened to her sense of grace, and what the hell happened to her math skills? (She spent a career at Chrysler in accounting.) She was undeniably older than almost everybody at the center that day.

In Florida she and my Dad hung out with people easily 20 years younger, but she has to know she's aging... Doesn't she???

Shortly after she told me I was one of her best friends. Well, I hope so, but I felt the need to remind her that I was also her daughter. She vehemently claimed she never had children.
We now have had this discussion repeatedly. Each time I tell her, in bedtime story format, that she met a wonderful man when she was 40, married at 41, had me at 42 and my sister at 44. Each time she's filled with a sense of wonder and awe that she just may really be my Mom. When I remind her that's why I call her Mom, she usually buys the story. (For the record, there are times, usually during midday, when she remembers she has daughters all on her own.)

I recently pulled out old photos to reinforce her maternal history with me. She lit up at a photo from my first birthday and even said "there's my baby!" I was so excited. Progress. "See, you do remember. That was my first birthday," I said. She looked at me quizzically. "Now, come on -- how could I remember that?! I would have been what, two?!"

Oh, the comedian! And, oh, my frustration! I would LOVE to know how old she thinks she is. I ask all the time, but she's clever enough not to answer. She knows she doesn't know. But she's positive I'm a practical joker when I insinuate she's 87. I periodically ask questions to help narrow down her current mental age. If she doesn't remember having me, she's at best in her 30's. One time when we were coloring (a new favorite activity) she said "If anyone came in and saw us right now they'd think we were crazy. Us being done with high school and practically in college." She often introduces me as her sister, but at what age???

Back to the adult day care center. I immediately found the opportunity to vocalize my concerns and an apology, privately -- straight to the director. I realized I really needed their center. I went there because I couldn't provide all the stimulation she needed single-handedly at home. I wanted my Mom to participate in singing, exercise, and arts and crafts classes. Now I knew our need was far more urgent. She won't be able to stay with me forever and she is going to have to start getting acclimated to being around people her own age. Her real age. Donna, a saint, explained the behavior was normal (for lack of a better word) and even let me in on a huge secret -- half the people there think they're "volunteers", strictly on site to help others. Viola! I signed my Mom up immediately to be a volunteer in the program. (2009 note: it took several tries, over the course of a year, but she now attends regularly.)

With the day care center enrollment worked out, I honestly don't know why I'm so concerned with trying to unravel my mom's current mental age. On the positive side, if she's not 40 yet, than neither am I -- I can roll with that. Thank you Mom, not only for the gift of life -- but now helping me shave a few years off!

Name Game

The Detroit Zoo has asked for help in naming twin Lemurs. After seeing their picture in the paper last night, my Mom said "well, that's Peekaboo" pointing to the one on the left.
I asked what the other one's name was and she said "well, Yankee Doodle."
Peekaboo and Yankee Doodle!
I laughed so hard we called the zoo this morning and entered her in the contest.

After that we cozied up with a horse magazine and chose names for horses. She's really good at this naming thing! Top two horse names: "White Rover" for a giant light grey and "Prime Minister" for a very regal looking dark bay Dressage horse.

This could be our new boredom activity!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Oh the Places You'll Go!

At least once a day, as I take my Mom on some crazy adventure, I think to myself, "if my Dad could see this"... and then I have a little private chuckle. He knew, at least more or less, what my Mom would be in for if she came to live with me. My sister did too. So in general, I don't have to offer a lot of apologies.

In the background article I said I like to "ride horses, socialize and travel" -- that was my polite way of saying I am busy, semi-selfish and the least likely person you'd ever choose to be a caregiver. Having said that, I love to cook and entertain, I'm tired of living alone and have a deep regret over not having children. This was the perfect opportunity to give parenting a try -- luckily my Mom's a full grown adult and I can do it my way. (Which means without sacrificing a whole lot, the perfect message for people wrestling with the decision to give parent care a try or not: Caregiving does not have to be an imposition or restrictive, at least not as far as I'm concerned.)

My sister and I learned to read with Dr. Suess books. My Mom collected the ENTIRE set. When I say "learned to read", I use the phrase loosely, especially in the pre-kindergarten years. I remember a cousin bringing his girlfriend over for a visit and I recited Green Eggs and Ham, completely from memory, with page turns and all. As I write this, I'm thinking I need to add "Oh the Places You'll Go" to the set for my Mom.

The most lasting image I'll have of this caregiving experience is glancing over and seeing my Mom riding shotgun in the car. She loves it and I love having her along. The enclosed cabin seems to help her brain focus. We have some of our best and most lucid conversations in the car. We laugh, sing, point out beautiful gardens, pretty houses and even cloud formations while we drive. It's some of our best quality time. I'm always encouraging my sister to take my Mom for a car ride -- I'm sure she thinks I'm a nut!

I'm usually running late, so she often has a breakfast bar or sandwich on her lap. Yes, I confess, she probably has one meal a day on the road. That's definitely an "if Dad could see this" moment, especially if we've grabbed chicken nuggets at a drive thru. (She and I both detested fast food in the past, but her taste buds have changed and my need for convenience has grown!) Even if it wasn't a nutritional requirement, I'd feed her a snack of some type on the road. If she's not busy in the passenger seat, I'm plagued with "this is a long ride" over and over, even if it's the three minute trip up to the corner grocery store.

Oh, and the places she goes!
Starting from day one I've hauled my Mom around with me just about everywhere I go, including wine tastings, horse shows, even a Botox appointment. (She expressed absolutely no interest in the bizarre looking procedure, nor an ounce of motherly concern that it may inflict pain. Her only question as the Dr. poked needles directly into my forehead was if that was me in the chair. "Is that Mary?" she kept asking, keeping a constant vigil, probably worried she might miss her ride home.)
We go to the library and book stores. Even though comprehension isn't there, she still reads voraciously and appreciates being surrounded by books.
We go to church every week, festivals when we can, landscaping nurseries to walk through the flowers and sometimes even the movies, although most of the time she finds them too loud.

Restaurant experiences are always fun. My Mom moved from a rural part of Florida, where the most exotic type of eatery might be a bar-b-que, back to the Detroit area where she's now experiencing a much broader menu. I like to shock and surprise her, so our first adventure in dining was to a Greek restaurant where we taught her to "oopa"! As the waitress brought the cheese to the table and it poofed into ceiling high flames, I thanked God my Mom has a strong heart and her thick head of hair did not get singed. She loved the experience so much that she now yells "oopa" whenever she sees the flame, even if the Saganaki is being served across the room. And sometimes when it's not Saganaki at all... We also frequent a Mexican restaurant and one Sunday night the waiter was delivering fajitas to a table -- the platter spewed smoke and my Mom yelled, you guessed it -- "oopa"! The crowd sitting around us lifted their margarita glasses, gave an "oopa" cheer themselves and had a huge laugh.

When I travel with my Mom, I have to be prepared for that type of interaction. Everywhere we go she draws attention. We're like a traveling ministry to people healing from past pains. Women and men, sometimes even children, share stories of their own parent or grandparent. They often grab my mom's hand or even a chair and join us. She's loves chatting with people, so I encourage it.

For a while I took her to a local pub for sing-a-longs on Wednesday's. On those occasions I wished so much that my Dad could not only see where we were, but join us. The singer always took time to personally walk over with his guitar and serenade my mom. Together they'd croon John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Road," putting a huge smile on my Mom's face. I always thought we were at singing therapy, but one night he explained that he had been watching us. He was battling the decision on whether to keep his mom at home, or find placement. That night, I knew my Mom and I had a calling to help others make that decision.

I want to make people aware of the immense rewards of keeping a parent at home, but I'm also quick to warn that my Mom is what in the horse world we would call an "easy keeper." She's super happy, content and fun. A real joy to have around. That's not the case with many Alzheimer's patients who cannot tolerate too much change or stimulation. Many, sadly, also grow very mean.

Taking the imposition out of the relationship does require some creative give and takes. And they change constantly. For instance, after watching other moms read while their daughters rode, I gave myself permission to let my Mom sit in the car by herself for an hour. I leave her with treats and something to read while I'm in the barn and I park where I can keep an eye on her and she can watch us ride.

I also had to learn when it was acceptable to leave my Mom home. If she had her way she'd be included in everything, even dates. I had to learn not only where to draw the line, but that it was okay to draw a line. I worked soooo hard at making it not seem like a sacrifice to include her, it seemed wrong to ask for a little time off.

But, there are times when I need a break. And I'm learning to take them.
What I'm trying to achieve now is a healthy balance. I really hope my Dad can see that, because I know he'd be proud.

Blog Backlog

You'll find a flurry of postings for September. That's because I don't think the website will allow me to cheat and go back and put one posting in each month since the first of the year so I could dare look productive and organized.

Whether it's due to my chronic procrastination or a completely erratic schedule since I've had my Mom as a roommate (a topic for a future blog), at least I'm finally following through with publishing entries.

I've had my Mom now for a full year -- I've been cataloging our journey since day one. So, we'll start the first week or two with a burst of activity, then taper off to a manageable pace.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Little Background

My Mom always asked me to write about her. She was a super unique individual in her day -- she had her first child at the age of 42 and a second at 44.
After I became a journalist, she hounded me every Mother's Day to tell her story. When I moved out of state she'd even send mother/daughter photos to accompany her pitch and recall stories about being the only Mom with gray hair when she took me to kindergarten, or how people asked if we were her grandchildren during shopping expeditions. I focused solely on breaking news in those days -- murder, corruption, destruction... I always understood that she was a pioneer in her day, I was always super proud, I just never got around to telling anyone about it -- until now.

Sadly, the story today isn't so much about her glory days of being a late in life mother, but my adventures of taking on the role of mothering her.

My sister and I both had always been close to both my mom and dad. Having us late in life, they cherished family time and spent oodles of quality time with us. They never missed a dinner hour, listened endlessly to us recite homework, volunteered at school and when Mom left us with kitchen duty, Dad would start some pretty big soap fights that trailed through the entire house. (Mom always said she had 3 kids.) The quality time remained well into adulthood but stretched to other more "important" interests like playing golf and having beers.

Never having children of my own, I handled the regular visits to Florida when their health began to decline. My Dad's story is equally remarkable to my Mom's. At 92 he still played golf, drove a car and played sole caregiver to my mom who was in her 6th or 7th year of Alzheimer's at that point. Stubborn and independent, he refused (okay, fired) anyone we hired to try and help with the task. Ultimately, the stress led to heart failure. He literally wore himself into the ground caring for my Mom. He waited for my arrival one Friday, then permanently snuck out during his sleep.

That's where my journey with my Mom began. I came into the bedroom in the morning to find my father had passed away and my Mom laying alone. It was clear he had handed her care off to me. It was literally like having a toddler left on my door step. She's been with me basically 24/7 ever since.

I packed her key belongings in the car and set out for a full out adventure road trip from Florida to Michigan. Trying to create a memorable journey, we attempted a number of side trips as we made the trek up I-75 -- each one a bust. That's when I discovered what my Dad had always tried to tell me -- 65-70% of my Mom was still there, you just had to be around consistently enough to witness it. Quick witted, she'd have some hilarious one-liners when my attempts at sight-seeing would flop belly up. I never thought I'd laugh that hard with my Mom again. The side trips that should have been a huge waste of time, really helped us reconnect.

The first few weeks at my place included big attempts at getting her properly nourished and hydrated again. Then we went to work at building physical strength and increasing mental stimulation.

We saw so much progress in just two weeks, my sister and I eagerly planned to find a phenomenal facility with memory care. We knew she'd thrive with proper exercise both mentally and physically. Our premise proved to be a great idea -- reality proved much more grim.

From the biggest to most humble of facilities we found one common denominator -- not one of the memory care units housed a single person that resembled my Mom. Universally we found memory care units filled with invalids. Literally men and women strapped to wheel chairs, on respiratory equipment, not capable of participating in a single activity. My Mom was too far gone for traditional assisted living, but certainly not ready to mingle with comatose people either. We labeled her a "tweener" -- and she came to live with me!

I'm 46, divorced, no kids and lead a super active life riding horses, socializing and traveling. I have two horses, two dogs, a cat and now, a Mom.

I've become a stay at home Mom to My Mom -- and this is our story!