A few short months ago, my sweet wife got a phone call. “Hey, can you go pick up mom?” her sister asked. “James (not his real name) was admitted to the hospital this morning.”
“Oh, what’s wrong with him?” my wife asked.
“He had some pain in his upper stomach area, so he drove himself to the hospital to be checked. They think it might be his gall bladder, or something,” sister said.
That conversation was the genesis of my wife’s and my foray into elderly care. We are not equipped to take care of an elderly person. Let me tell you why; there is more to the story. ‘Mom’ is 92 years-old and has dementia. In the past few years, she has suffered two broken hips and recovered from both. ‘Recovered’ is a relative term. She is no longer in the care center getting physical therapy treatments each day. But she requires assistance when she walks (either from her walker or from a person steadying her along), and she needs help getting up steps, into cars, and into bed at night. We have a large dog who shares our home. Izzy the dog does not have free roam, thus there are a few gates throughout the house, which to mom, are obstacles that could trip her up and make her fall. A fall for mom could be the signature on her death warrant.
Dementia is a difficult disorder that is problematic when dealing with the elderly. In mom’s case, she can’t remember the names of her children or their relationship to her, but she can remember every single possession she has – they are indexed and categorized according to importance – all contained in the short-term files in her mind.
The moment we brought mom home and made her a comfortable spot on the living room sofa, she asked why she was not at the hospital with her husband. “COVID, mom! The hospital only allows one person in the room! James’ daughter is with him, so she can help make medical decisions!” Did I mention that mom cannot hear – even with her hearing aids? You yell and hope most of it gets through. Sometimes she nods her head in understanding, but mostly does not hear a single word you said.
James is mom’s second husband. The two of them got married 14 years after her first husband died. They were both 86 years-old at the time. It was cute to watch an old couple so in love and ready to ‘live out their lives together.’ Nobody knew how long that would be, but they both, at the time, were in good health. In fact, they traveled all over the U.S. Northwest visiting children and seeing old friends. Old age meant nothing to them; it wasn’t in their vocabulary. They were in love and loving life. Even the dementia, which set in after the hip operations, didn’t slow mom down from being James’ love. Toward the end, James did everything for mom – putting her to bed at night, getting her up in the morning, fixing her meals, bathing her, walking her to the car, driving her to the store.
Now those acts of kindness were mine and my wife’s responsibility. There’s a learning curve for everything. Elderly care is a quick study; sometimes you are jumped into the position in mere minutes, like my wife and I were.
After a few moments on the couch, mom motioned me over. “I need to go to my condo. People are going to take my stuff! I need to be there, so they don’t take my stuff,” she implored.
“Mom, nobody is going into your house! If anyone takes your things, I will go right over to their house and take them back! I yelled. We went back and forth for a few minutes until she was satisfied that I was right and nobody was going to bother her possessions.
That night is when I realized why elderly care-givers are such high-paid professionals. My wife was asleep, and I was just crossing the threshold into slumber. Suddenly, the bedroom door burst open. Silhouetted in the doorway was a pixy old woman with spiky hair. I came awake in an instant when she flipped the light on and declared, “I’m going to the condo! They’re taking my stuff! Take me there, NOW. I looked at my watch; it was just after midnight.
The toughest day with mom came two days after she came to stay. My sweet wife took a call from the hospital. “I’m sorry to inform you, ‘James’ has passed away. You may come to the hospital to see him.” I and my wife knelt next to mom, held her hand, and informed her that James had passed. Sometimes the only way to express your feelings is to shut up and hug someone. So that’s what I did. No words are adequate when you are trying to comfort your mother whose husband just passed – only a lasting hug works.
We loaded mom into the car and took her to see her James for the last time. The hospital welcomed us all with open arms. COVID measures are void after death, and I must say, after the hospital is no longer liable for their patients’ safety.
The funeral and burial were over in a flash. James’ family invited mom for all the ceremonies and rituals. Incidentally, her ‘things’ were on mom’s mind and became the theme for the next few weeks. One day, she lost her favorite picture of her and James standing together. She blamed ‘that woman with the blonde hair.’ The lady of whom she spoke was her daughter, who knew nothing about the picture’s disappearance.
Later, I was able to take a digital image of mom’s favorite picture and copy it onto photo paper. When I handed it to her, she declared, “So, you are the one who stole my picture!” She put the picture up to her mouth and gave it a big kiss. And then she gave me a huge, long hug.
To my elderly mom with dementia, her ‘things’ are the most important and memorable parts of her life. And sometimes those things include the people she used to know but still loves.