The assisted living residence called last week. Mama’s name is on the waiting list there. Every now and then over the years they would call when her “favorite apartment” opened up. She kept telling them she wasn’t ready. They called a few months before I moved home, and she called me.
“Are you really going to come and live with me for two years?” she asked.
“One year,” I said firmly.
“So I should turn down this apartment?”
“Do you want to move there,” I asked, “or stay at home?”
“If you aren’t coming, I need to take it while it’s available.”
“I’m coming,” I said, waiting.
“Ok.” she said, finally. “I won’t take it.”
I wonder, now, if we helped her get clear what she wanted. I wonder if she needed us to make a different decision for her. But my house was on the market; my decision was made, whether or not it was what she wanted.
The director of the residence called a couple more times after I moved in. Before I decided to stay on past my year—and, it seems now, into eternity—we did get help in the person of an elder care social worker, to determine what she wanted in her heart of hearts. It took a while, lots of caveats and disclaimers, but she wanted to stay. She was grateful. That didn’t stop her from second thoughts whenever things weren’t going smoothly. “I should have taken that best room when I had the chance,” she would say. Maybe so, I would think.
So, when Ellen called last week, I thought the room had become available again. But she and I had talked informally a few months ago, and determined she needs more care now than they provide. It wasn’t why she was calling. She was going through the waiting list, and wondered if my mother should be removed and her $100 deposit refunded. It’s a milestone decision.
“It seems like she’s set for now, is that right?”
“Yes,” I said. “And could she even get in there, now?”
“I don’t think she would thrive here,” she said, “do you?”
“No,” I agreed, imagining her sleeping in her recliner all day, maybe wandering a few doors down the hall with her walker. Or not, fearing she couldn’t see to find her way back to her room. And not able to use the elevator; or know where things were in the tiny kitchen, so she could continue to fix her breakfast; or eat the food in the dining room—not that she ever would have thrived on that count.
It’s easy to second guess decisions. Did we do the right thing, keeping her at home? Last week I was thinking about my youth being in her face all the time (In-Your-Face Aging). Does it make her angry? Keep her clinging to control, even when it seems counter productive? Keep her from accepting lost capabilities and finding new things to enjoy instead of continuing to try to do the old ones? Is that the attraction of the euphemistic “independent living” residence? Seniors are surrounded by their peers, people who are in the boat with them.
I am not in her boat with her, just as my daughter is not in my boat. We are all at different places in our lives. Sometimes I think it’s not a good idea to have my own coming life in my face all the time, but I do have contact with peers. She has few. There’s just me and my sister, and our care team, showing her daily all that she can no longer do.
Or has that kept her active, trying to keep a step ahead of us? Fighting to remember how to use the dishwasher, the dryer; to take care of the property, to retain the names of plants.. She doesn’t instruct me in order to pass on her considerable knowledge; she does it to remind herself that she knows. If she didn’t have me and her caregivers to instruct, would she have forgotten?
Yesterday, I learned my aunt, who at 97 had still been living in her home, has moved to assisted living after many falls and deeply into short-memory dementia. And last night, my other living aunt’s caring friend called looking for her children’s phone numbers. She was in the ER, not for the first time. My cousins say she has resisted moving to full-care living, where she has long needed to be. Both my aunts waited until the rains came before they moved. Is that best? Or is it best to get established in a new environment while still healthy and vital?
And who decides? A friend points out it is the children’s responsibility to make sure their elderly parent is safe; it’s not our job to make them happy, especially if what they think would make them happy is not safe—or not possible.
There is no ideal. And so we pick an option and hang on for the ride. I ask myself why I am doing this. What’s in it for me? (And yes, I shamelessly admit, I am not altruistically doing it only for my mother. I don’t believe anyone should do that.) What’s in it for me is to be back here in the part of the country I love. And I have dreams for the future that may never happen, but require holding on to this property. I’m like a migrating animal in the Serengeti, traveling a great distance in the dry season for the idea of rain. It’s what we hopeful humans do.
My mother, who is not given to emotion, wept when I gave her the news of her sister-in-law. (I haven’t yet told her about her sister. One shock at a time.)
“I’m so lucky!” she sobbed as I held her.
“I’m so lucky.” I don’t know exactly to what she referred: her good health, still being at home, her daughters who’ve made it possible? It’s circular really, none would be the case without the other two. We can’t know what her status would be had she moved three and a half years ago—maybe better, maybe worse, certainly different—but she does not regret the decision we made. That’s the best we can hope for. Right?
I borrowed the title of this post from a memoir I’m reading of the same name, by Alexandra Fuller. I just love the words.