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.