It’s been a wild year. Two family members slipped the bonds of earth, death book-ending life as we celebrated the birth of my fourth (and last) grandchild in May and my mother’s 100th birthday a month later. Beginnings, endings, changes, exhilarations, disappointments wrapped into a single hard year.
Mama was in the hospital twice in September with bowel obstructions, then fell after coming home the second time, breaking her wrist and shoulder. After spending ten days of the previous two weeks sleeping in the hospital, alternating nights with my sister, I was on-call 24 hours a day for the next six weeks to take care of her every need. I had help, Rebecca came every other night and I hired three new caregivers—increasing paid care from 16 hours a week to 40—but it was too much.
I have heard and read that every hospitalization and every fall accelerates decline in the elderly. And once the crises start, they keep happening. Rebecca and, especially, I had reached the limit of what we could do to keep Mama safe and ourselves sane. After looking at options, we moved her to an assisted living residence at Thanksgiving.
I’ve told this roller-coasting story in previous posts, and the days are still up and down. I am told it takes at least three months for an elderly person to adjust to a new living situation. We’re five weeks in, though it seems much longer.
Mama’s vision continues its decline to nearly nothing now. Though she insists the decline has accelerated, her eye doctor says it remains on the same trajectory it has been on for years. Still, to adjust to a move while visually impaired at 100 years old is unfathomable to me.
Her dementia is increasing too—or at least her denial of it is.
“All my tops are in the hamper,” she tells me. “The aid could only find this one I’m wearing.” It is clearly not her favorite.
Telling her I will take them home to wash, I check her hamper. “There’s only one top in here,” I tell her. I check her dresser drawer. “And there are six in your drawer.”
“Well, she told me there weren’t any!” Mama scoffs.
I don’t believe she asked the aid to find her a top. I suspect she tried to find one herself, maybe exploring the wrong drawer; maybe—with the loss of sense of touch due to nerve damage from the broken bones, and because touch and brain function are related—not understanding what she had her hand on. She needs to assign her inabilities to someone, she is unable to accept responsibility, unable to accept diminished capacity. This is the stuff of her dementia. This is what drives my sister and me crazy. It’s hard to help her when we don’t know what’s real.
(Just this morning I read that virtually none of the memory-impaired believe themselves to be so, whatever their age. I thought it was just my mother. And though cognitive decline seems to accelerate, in fact it remains gradual.)
I try not to dismiss everything she says—at least not aloud. I understand that she needs to feel a sense of empowerment when most of the time she feels an utter lack of power. I also think her blame game diminishes her happiness. I try to get her to look for the positives, to focus on what she can do rather than what she can’t. She has spent a lifetime thinking if people don’t know her struggle they will have no reason to pay attention to her. And they won’t know unless she tells them.
When I challenged the negativity in a letter she was dictating to me, she said she thought they needed to know her life is difficult.
“Why?” I ask, “especially if you aren’t balancing those things with what is good?” I give her examples: “You have made friends, you have more visitors, you have a place to walk. You can walk. Your daughters visit you every day!”
“Well, why don’t you just write it then?” she says before she shuts down.
It makes me sad, but it’s who she is and it is not in my power to change it. Perhaps the old are only able to remember (inaccurately) what they have lost. She lost the familiarity of home and immediate attention to all her needs. Maybe those two things were more important to her quality of life than all she has gained.
Visiting Mama has yet to become a happy time of reminiscing and enjoying each others’ company. As I listen to her complaints I tell myself I can hear them, try to give her what she needs, and then I get to go home and light a fire. My life is better.
There have been some amazing sunrises from my home lately. I’ve reveled in the part I can see, but sometimes I yearn to see more, the part hidden behind the trees, the part around the bend in the valley around the hill. Someday, I think, I will jump in the car and go in search of a larger vista.
But the truth is, we can’t ever see the whole thing, what’s just around the corner. That is for tomorrow. And if we go looking for what’s coming next, we risk missing today. I could drive to the end of my road, turn left to a clear cut from which I might see the sun rising over the other mountain, but I would miss the glory of it over this one. Or maybe if I drove out the valley road and around the hill, I could see more. Or I might get buried in a forest and not see any of it. In either case, by the time I arrive it could be gone. Opportunity lost.
As the new year dawns, I am going to focus on my own cans and let go the cannots. I cannot change my mother, I cannot do all of the things I want to do, I cannot go back to my own previous lives. I can be present to my mother and at the same time I can make a beginning toward my future—the part I can see. I’m excited about what’s coming and ready for the challenge to make it happen.
We choose our path, we make big and small adjustments for a better view, for a better life; and with each adjustment we take a risk. For every choice we make, there is another one we don’t make. Life is filled with living and dying, with endings…and with beginnings. On to 2017.