There was a heartwarming story in the Arizona Daily Star while I was away. A family, out in the early morning, delivering the Star, saw an elderly woman lying on the ground. Wearing only a shower cap, underwear and socks, she was frozen on the sidewalk. They covered her with their coats and spare blankets from their car. The dad lay next to her, blowing warm air on her face while the mom called 911. Less than 10 minutes later, professional help had arrived.
They saved her life. She spent five days in the hospital, thawing out, and is now on her way to Milwaukee, to live near her daughters. The retirement home in which she's been living threw her a going away party, and invited the family who rescued her. She greeted them with a hug and a kiss and these words: I don't remember you but I love you.
Her friends described her as a socialite and a fashionista. I'd call her mildly demented and unsafe to be living alone.
This story is the nightmare of all of us who have parented elderly parents from afar. Did she get lost on her way to the shower? Did she mistake her shower cap for a stocking cap, thinking it would keep her warm? Were her shoes too difficult to put on, or were they never considered? Did she forget the purpose of her LifeAlert button, or did she have one at all? What if that family had not noticed her?
Respecting a parent's wish to live independently is what we all hope to do. It's what our parents expect us to do. It's what we'd like our children to do for us. G'ma was emphatic - I want to stay at home. We took that as a dispositive answer; she seemed safe enough, she wasn't all that forgetful, and her wishes trumped our concerns.
In retrospect, we should have stepped in ten years before.
Daddooooo's medications, over which she always had had control, were being given haphazardly. She couldn't keep it straight - did the pill go down with food or without food. I discovered the problem while helping my Dad change before my nephew's bar mitzvah. The pill container was on the sink in the hotel bathroom; G'ma had not followed the instructions and his breakfast was now all over his shirt.
She laughed about coming downstairs and finding a light still burning on the cooktop. Her refrigerator was filled with half eaten containers of food she'd ordered. She was reading books while holding them upside down.
We denied the evidence. It was too overwhelming to consider that our mother was losing her mind. The thought that she who had ably cared for us now needed care herself was anathema to her and to her children. So, we lived in blissful ignorance.
She got lost while walking in her retirement neighborhood in New Jersey. She flagged down a policeman, showed him the address card Brother had created for her, and asked if the officer would aim her in the right direction. He, graciously, offered her a ride to her front door and she, ever the lady, accepted. My sister was beside herself, and I brushed her concerns aside. No harm, no foul, I said. She solved the problem herself. She enjoyed a long walk and had a good night's sleep after all that exercise. What was the problem?
The problem was with me. I could not accept that she needed help. I didn't want to start down the path of becoming her caregiver. As long as she put up a good front, I was willing to leave her alone. Even when she moved to Tucson, she lived in a congregate living situation, but without help.
That worked until she began falling. We hired full time caregivers, just for a while, until the casts come off, Mom. The casts came off but she couldn't find her way to the dining room any more. Worse, once she got there, she ate alone. The more competent ladies with whom she had formerly shared meals were put off by her forgetfulness. They no longer wanted her company at dinner.
That was the final straw. I had moved my mother back to Junior High School. She was shunned by the cool kids. On my own, I began a tour of facilities with more comprehensive care, and was lucky enough to find The Pod Castle just two miles down the road. She lived in her own, small apartment, but caregivers checked on her every hour. She was reminded to join the other 15 residents for meals. Someone stayed in her room while she showered, just in case.
As she aged, and became more infirm, it was a small step for the caregivers to move from the chair outside the bathroom door to the seat outside the roll-in shower to helping her wash her hair. The transition was easy for everyone but me.
I still saw her as independent, strong minded, capable. I was living in a fantasy world. Once I was able to accept the fact that the Mommy I knew had been replaced by a Mommy I was meeting for the first time, things got easier. I never made peace with the forgetfulness piece, but she did.
Will I remember more if I get angry? I don't think so. Besides, who wants to be around a cranky old lady?
Her judgmental attitude disappeared, replaced by a kind acceptance. Though my siblings tell me that I helped her through the hardest times, I disagreed then and now. She was a much nicer person in her dotage. Her default response was Whatever you think is best.
I could assume that responsibility because we had been talking about her failing memory for years. What would we do when she could no longer recognize her grandchildren? What about when driving was no longer safe? Where would she live out her remaining years?
Luckily, Arizona's mild temperatures were tempting to her on a frigid New Jersey afternoon, and I swooped in and moved her here without protest. She was willing to consider living situations which had been rejected out of hand just months before... months during which she lost the ability to read a menu, to make a doctor's appointment, to pay her own bills. I think that she was glad to have someone else be in charge.
I shudder to think of how difficult it would have been had we not been talking about this over the preceding years. I had a good sense of what she wanted, and she trusted me to listen and make it happen. A lower cost of living here gave her choices, and she was happy in the Pod Castle, having her meals and laundry and entertainment provided.
I wonder if the nearly-frozen-to-death lady and her daughters had had those talks. I wonder how their mom convinced them that she was perfectly fine. I wonder if they are berating themselves for allowing her to fall victim to living in a less restrictive environment than she needed. I wonder if they or the facility made the decision to move her out.
Growing old is not for sissies, as Bette Davis reminded us. It helps to be prepared.