Tag Archives: dementia

The Sweet Life

Standard

2 scoops vanillaTen years ago my mother moved into a retirement community.

For six years she lived in a lovely apartment in the assisted living section, while her dementia continued to worsen. She has spent the last four years in a slow decline, in a secured area of that same retirement community.

As her dementia has progressed, I’ve done my best to embrace each version of her.

 

My 85-year old Mother is now in the end stage of dementia.

It may have been a stroke that caused her to turn this last corner, or just the natural progression of the disease. There is no need for diagnostic tests. They would only serve to satisfy our curiosity. The end result is the same.

As they say in memory care, “there has been a significant change.”

She is completely immobile except for her left foot which she wiggles in response to touch or in time to the music of Frank Sinatra, and her left arm which she occasionally raises while sleeping, bearing a strong resemblance to Rosie The Riveter.

She is no longer verbal.

Her ability to swallow is compromised. Her liquids must be thickened and her solid food must be pureed.

Four times a day she rides a Hoyer lift, as she is moved back and forth between her bed and a reclining wheelchair.  It’s as if she has a Disneyland E ticket for an amusement park ride no one ever wants to board. She endures it all gracefully.

At the onset of this final decline, I was sad. For a few days I occasionally boo-hooed at her bedside, grieving the decade and a half that we have lived without the original version of Mom.

Once I quit feeling sorry for myself, I realized there is a certain sweetness to this stage.

There are no more repeated sentences. The questions composed of jumbled words which seemed impossible to answer appropriately, have ceased. The gibberish is gone.

At times, she has a flat expression or is just too sleepy to open her eyes. But, some days she awakens from a nap in her bed with a sweet, contented smile – much like an infant.

Other times she is bright-eyed and able to follow a conversation with her eyes. There have been silent giggles that turn into giant, yet still silent, belly laughs. These are so delightful  I don’t miss the sound of her original laugh.

Occasionally, it seems that the pathways in her brain have been magically reconnected.

When she refused to eat, we realized she was simply refusing to eat foods with a texture she didn’t like. I mean, really – not every food works in a pureed form.

She knew exactly what was going on. Her hunger strike at breakfast ended when oatmeal was taken off the menu. My sister clued the nurses in that Mom is a cream of wheat girl!

Her daily menus are now heavy on mashed potatoes, pudding, malts, and double scoops of ice cream. When she won’t eat anything…she will eat ice cream. Even when she is too tired to open her eyes, she opens her mouth awaiting the next spoonful.

These days, she really does eat dessert first.

Sure, there have been peaks and valleys as she slows down and then rallies. Any pain or discomfort is quickly soothed by the warm embrace of a morphine haze.

Always a college hoops fan, she is here for one more season of March Madness. The games serve as energetic, happy background music.

As we head into the Sweet Sixteen,  I am not entirely certain she will be here for the Final Four.

Instead, she is on the road to a long awaited heavenly reunion with her  Sweetie Pie.

Until then, we will savor the time we have left with her.

Mom will savor the ice cream. Two scoops at a time, with Hershey’s syrup.

Because, in more ways than one, life is sweet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music & Memory

Standard

I’ve witnessed the power of music with my Mom, who has advanced dementia.

On days when making conversation is difficult for her, she may ride quietly in the passenger seat of the car, or read a few signs we pass, or maybe whisper both sides of a conversation with someone I can’t see.

However, if the radio is set between a 40’s station and a light 70’s station, she’ll sing along. She’ll check the display to read the artist and song.

The songs trigger memories and conversation.

“Gosh, if I had a nickel for every time my girlfriends and I danced to this song.”

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name….I always thought their sound was just so pleasing to the ears.”

I know even this small bit of stimulation is good for her, and it is enjoyable to see.

A few months ago, I joined her for a Sunday afternoon of Christmas Carols at the care facility where she lives.

We sat amid a crowd of residents – many with dementia, and sea of walkers and wheelchairs,

Maybe I’ve watched too many Fa-la-la-la-Lifetime and Hallmark movies, but I swear Mike the piano player looked exactly like Kris Kringle in street clothes.

His repertoire included all the classics. He was delightful!

Occasionally, he stopped singing and let the group finish a line of a song.

The residents knew all the lyrics to every song.

I smiled as I looked around the room, and saw the heads bopping back and forth and the toes tapping in rhythm with the music.

No one was restless, agitated, or sitting in a dull, detached state.

The residents were relaxed and engaged with Mike and his performance.

It was fascinating to watch.

Somehow, the music magically melted through the fog of dementia.

I was so moved by what I was witnessing that I got a little teary.

Instead of looking sort of stone-faced as she had the previous day, Mom was animated.

She happily smiled at my phone so I could snap a pic.

Christmas Caroling Lois Anne loves a selfie

Christmas Caroling
Even Lois Anne loves a selfie!

The memory of that afternoon is a treasure.

A few days ago, my friend Terri, emailed me about a news story she had seen featuring Music & Memory – Muncie

This new program was started by a group of freshman at Ball State University. It is affiliated with Music & Memory, a national non-profit 501c3 organization, but the BSU students believe they are the first college-based group.

The mission of Music & Memory – Muncie is to bring iPods with personalized playlists to the elderly, especially those suffering with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

They recognize that personalized music can enhance the quality of life for these nursing home residents with cognitive disorders.

This is a brilliant and beautiful program. I remember the soundtrack of my college years. These college freshman are just beginning to compile theirs. I love their awareness that these older folks had a soundtrack to their lives, too.

By speaking to a resident’s family, they learn what genre and artists the resident likes.

With this simple idea they’re delivering more than just music.

They’re sparking happy memories.

1901280_1463103680572985_1899575397_n

They share friendship, love and compassion.

1891413_1470059506544069_244424885_o

With the use of splitters, the students listen to the music through their own set of headphones.

1534330_1468308366719183_1116771481_n-2

Because music sounds best when shared, doesn’t it?

1381829_1466577386892281_193871799_n

What an amazing way to enrich and humanize an isolated, nursing home existence.

M&M 2

 

M&M 1

 

When I read about their work and looked at the heartwarming photos, I was again moved to tears.

I was also filled with some Hoosier pride.

These college freshman are a great example of making the world a better place, by beginning in your own “backyard.”

They’re using their time and talents, employing a little bit of technology, but more importantly – a whole lotta heart.

.

If this “strikes a chord” with you, like it did with me, and you are interested in supporting this wonderful program, there are a few ways you can help:

  1. Visit their gofundme page and make a quick donation. Super easy and every little bit helps!
  2. Have you or your kids upgraded to a new iPod? Do you have a gently-used iPod (preferably an iPod shuffle) sitting around the house? They’ll take it!
  3. Grab an iTunes gift card the next time you’re at the grocery store. They’re always right there in the checkout area. Then instead of buying Candy Crush lives – boost some more interesting and real lives.

iTunes cards or gently used iPods can be mailed to:

Music and Memory – Muncie
c/o TCOM Dept.
Ball State University
Muncie, IN 47306 

.

I hope you’ll consider helping these remarkable BSU students with their inspirational program.

Visit their website or Facebook page to learn more about their work.

In an email to me, Tyler Sparkman, President of Music & Memory – Muncie wrote:

It has become an absolute joy and life changing experience working with these residents. Not only have we gone in and helped change the lives of the elderly by sharing these personal iPod mixes, but the elderly have also changed our lives! 

Well, that is music to my ears.

Clearly, no matter what genre of music they load on those iPods, these students ROCK!

 

 

The Gift Of The Moment

Standard

IMG_5465Next month, I will be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

This is very cool for me because I have always enjoyed Erma’s writing. It is often heartwarming, always pure comic genius, and timeless. Long before I could relate my personal life experiences to her writing, I thought she was hilarious.

At the age of 50, I have a greater appreciation for her insight and her use of  humor to celebrate the ups, and cope with the downs, of life. Life is short, but some days sure seem long. The ability to see the funny in everyday life is a gift.

Even Erma’s views on the subject of humor were insightful. Some of her more famous quotes about the importance of humor are:

If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.

He who laughs….last.

When humor goes, there goes civilization.

I have a sentimental attachment to her writing, because it reminds me of my Mom. When I was growing up, one of us would often ask the other, “Did you read Erma today?” Together, we laughed about her column, read her books and watched her segments on Good Morning America.

During the summer, we also tuned in at 9:00 a.m. to watch The Phil Donahue Show together. Oh, the education a teen could gain from The Phil Donahue Show back then. It was THE source for information, because he covered all the thought-provoking and juicy topics.

So, Phil and Erma are forever linked together in my mind. Not only because they are former neighbors who had a mutual admiration and affection for each other, but because they were involved in a sort of 1970’s Midwestern love triangle with my mom and me. Nothin’ weird here, this was a triangle of appreciation and adoration.

erma phil diagram

We enjoyed Phil, and we loved Erma. Erma and Phil loved and adored each other.

In light of this, it is especially cool for me that Phil Donahue will be the keynote speaker at the The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

During a visit to my hometown over the holidays, I decided to tell my Mom that I had gotten into the workshop. The former version of my Mom would have been so tickled about this. I knew the current version of my Mom, with advanced dementia, would not fully grasp what I was saying. I also knew she would have absolutely no memory of the conversation, just a minute later.

Despite being the subject of a few blog posts, including Sweetie Pie and She’s Such A Doll; she knows nothing about my blog, and has never read a single post.

So, as silly as it may be, I still wanted to share this news with her, and just enjoy the moment. 

One afternoon I sat in her room, reading the Christmas cards she had received. Some included photos or letters. (For anyone who continues to remember nursing home residents with greeting cards, may God Bless you for this kindness.) We passed the cards, photos, and notes back and forth. She was able to fondly recall at least a small detail about each friend or family member.

She was “tracking” fairly well, so I decided to share my news with her. As we chatted, she was lying on her side, atop her bed, like a teenage girl. Her elbow bent, her head propped up in her hand.

“Mom, do you remember reading Erma Bombeck?”

“Oh GAWD, yes. She’s SO funny!”

“Well, do you remember my friend, Terri?”

“Well, of course. How is she?”

I went on to explain in very simple terms, with no details, that Terri and I would both be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio.

I never even got to the part about Phil Donahue.

My Mom sat up, and said, “Really? You’re kidding?”

Wow! Had I really picked the perfect lucid moment?

Then she said, “We should call Grandma! She loves Erma, too!  She’ll go with us!”

Chatting with dementia, the trickster, is sort of what I imagine doing improvisational comedy is like: you never know which direction your partner will go next. You need to be on your toes, open to anything, think quickly, and just go with it.

We both smiled at the idea.

It was a lovely moment.

I went with it.

“Sure, that’s a great idea, Mom!”

As she slowly counted off on her right hand, she said “That’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 of us.”

Yep. Me, Terri, Mom, Grandma….and Erma gettin’ away for the weekend.

Of course, only three of us are actually alive, and only two of us are registered for the workshop.

Yet in some way, I feel like all five us will in fact be there.

.

Laughter rises out of tragedy when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage.

– Erma Bombeck

Time Travelers

Standard

ImageFor the first time in 50 years, I had an argument with my Mother.

We were chatting on the phone and reminiscing, when the subject turned to my Dad being mad at me.

“You know what you should do?” She said.

 “What?” I could not imagine what she was about to say.

“You should apologize to your Dad.” she said in a matter of  fact tone.

“Apologize?  For What?”

“Just apologize. He’ll like that.”

Then, in a sing-songy voice she continued, “When he gets home, why don’t you just say:  Dad…I’m really sorry…I didn’t mean to make you so mad. Will you forgive me?”

Instantly, I flamed. I could feel my blood pressure rising.

“Mom! I have NOTHING to apologize for!”

“Just do it.”she suggested.

“I didn’t do anything WRONG, Mother!”

“Come on, just apologize!”she said oh-so-very-sweetly.

“NO! Absolutely NOT. I am NOT apologizing to him!”

I stood my ground.

This is embarrassing because my Mother has advanced dementia. And my Dad passed away in 1986.

So yes, I had an argument with my 83-year old Mother….and refused to apologize for something that happened when I was 19… to my Dad who has been dead nearly 30 years.

Ridiculous, I know, and certainly not my proudest moment.

I dialed up my friend Nancy.

She was familiar with  my loving, but head-butting relationship with my Dad, and she is actively dealing with two aging parents . It’s a full circle friendship. I knew she would understand, and most importantly, laugh with me about the absurdity.

“What is wrong with me?” I asked her, after we had finished laughing.

Nancy said, “It’s those damn letters!  You read all those letters, and now YOU’RE  back in the 80’s with Lois!”

Maybe she was onto to something.

I had recently found a box of old letters, written to me throughout both terms of the Reagan Presidency. Letters from high school friends, college friends, and several family members.

I scanned the letters from my girlfriends, and emailed copies to the authors. (More on that, later.)

I also read the letters – all except the dozens from my Mom. I bundled those up and tucked them away for another day. I’ve gotten used to the  current version of my Mother, and I don’t want to reacquaint myself  just yet, with the previous version of her that I miss so terribly.

The event my Mom and I we were reminiscing about during our phone conversation was a coming of age moment for me, in the early 80’s. My Dad was not adjusting too well to my increasing independence, and during our debate of the day, I had outfoxed him for the first time.

He was openly furious.  I was silently victorious. Mom was secretly amused.

It has been one of my Mother’s favorite stories. The former version of my Mother would re-enact the conversation with me and we would have a good giggle.

However the current version of my Mother, who’s  mind was  somewhere back in the 1980’s  during our phone conversation, viewed it differently.

As Nancy had so insightfully pointed out, just maybe those old letters had opened a portal to emotional time travel for me, too.

So during the phone call, there I was, transported back to that summer evening, only to discover my Mom had switched  sides. I had no ally. Like the  cheese in the dell, I  stood alone.

Dementia can be magical thinking. It’s also a trickster, and it certainly keeps you on your toes. As such, our phone conversation quickly turned, and suddenly we were  back to the current day.

My Mom quizzed me.

“Where are you?”

“When did you move?”

“How old am I?”

“How old is your Dad?”

“How old are you?”

I answered truthfully (except for the teensy fib about Dad still being alive.)

She was shocked: “I can’t believe  you’re 50. Well, at least you’re not older than me, yet!”

Magical thinking indeed.

We began to wrap up our phone conversation.

Dad would be home from work soon, and she needed to get home to make dinner. She told me there wasn’t much in the fridge, so she planned to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

We said our “I love you’s” and hung up.

I admit, I was still  a bit miffed.

Hmmmphh. I thought smugly.

I should apologize?  I don’t think so.

SHE is the one who should be  apologizing…for that menu.

That’ll be the first and last time Dad eats a PB & J sandwich for dinner. 

Bingo, sex and the city Style

Standard

I recently saw a news segment about Bingo returning to popularity, and dare I say…hipness. The footage featured social clubs and lodges hosting BYOB, traditional Bingo tournaments. Hipsters were seated at long banquet tables with wine and beer bottles in the center. Bars hosting pop culture themed Bingo nights draw enthusiastic crowds ready to enjoy the old-fashioned game.

Nostalgia never goes out of style. Amid our ever changing, tech-crazed world, I think there is sort of a soothing quality to Bingo. It is rhythmic: listening for the call, scanning your card, marking the number, exhaling.

I was surprised to discover I was actually on the cutting edge of a trend, however with a bit of a twist.

Every Thursday afternoon at 2:00, Bingo is played at the health center where my Mother lives. A gentleman named Dave arrives to volunteer as the Bingo caller, and his girlfriend Rita helps players who need a little assistance. Dave and Rita are a great team, and add to the fun. The average age of the players is at least 80, and many have Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia.

Dave, Mom and Rita

Dave, Mom and Rita

On the Thursday afternoons that I am fortunate to be in my hometown, playing Bingo has become one of my favorite things to do with my Mom. It is good mental and social stimulation for her, and it is pure fun to be with this crowd.

This past December, I convinced my niece Sarah, an elementary school teacher enjoying her Christmas break, to join my sister and me for Bingo with Grandma. I’m sure she thought I was over-selling it, but she was a good sport and came along. The four of us settled in at a table, for our multi-generational girls’ day out.

Even before the first game began, we had somehow morphed into the sex and the city girls. There we sat: middle-aged Carrie and Charlotte, professional 30-something Miranda, and of course 82-year old Samantha. Each of us had 2 Bingo cards and a margarine container full of Tiddly Winks to use as markers.

The television characters Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha all lacked self-control in at least one area (men, food, drinking, clothing, purses and shoes) at some point during the series.  The Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha seated at the Bingo table lacked self-control in stifling laughter.

Dave began his witty Bingo calling, custom-tailored for his geriatric audience.

B..4…B..4…Not after…..but….B…4

Each number was repeated several times, while the players intently searched their two cards. Invariably, no matter how many times Dave repeated the call, at least one player asked, “What was it again?”

BINGO!! Charlotte handily won the Grand Prize for the 1st game. The Grand Prize box was passed to her. She carefully perused the assortment, which included lovely scented soaps, lotions and other gifty personal items. “Oooh!” she said as she dug to the bottom and proudly revealed her pick.

“Really? Seriously? A pack of Band-Aids?” Miranda said. She could hardly contain herself, laughing at Charlotte’s ridiculously nerdy pick.

I..22…I..2..2…Our ballerina’s…..Tutu….I22

BINGO!! Carrie won the 2nd prize in the first game, and thoughtfully chose a small box of Junior Mints:  a prize to share with the table. True to the lore of Junior Mints, in the process of struggling to open the tightly glued little box, a waxy chocolate disc was launched into orbit. Miranda chased it as it bounced across the room.

B…12….B…12….Everybody’s favorite vitamin….B…12

Miranda, an experienced Bingo caller for the kids at school, thought she knew all the “Bingo Lingo.”  The funny B12 call caught her off guard. Her self-control was crumbling.

Samantha was especially spunky, sparring with Dave and trading jabs, both with great amusement and affection.

Her uninhibited sense of humor was also on fire. You know Samantha, the innocent mention of a word like “balls” can result in a zinger.

The rest of the girls were stifling nervous giggles.

A player at a nearby table, impaired from an unknown ailment, spoke with a squeak that sounded remarkably like a cat saying, “Mew, mew, mew.” The unspoken fear among the girls was that Samantha would grow annoyed with the “mewing” and say so, or heaven forbid, imitate it!

O…66….O…66…Get your kicks…… on Route 66……..O…66

This call is magical, because while dementia may erase decades of memories, song lyrics are easily recalled.

Dave started off by loudly saying,  “Flagstaff, Arizona”

From the a table in the other corner of the room came, “Don’t forget Winona”

Another resident added, “Kingman, Barstow”

Finally, “San Bernardino”

Eager to join in the fun, Carrie chimed in: “Winslow, Arizona” before realizing that she had the wrong song, artist and decade.

There was no need for Carrie to be embarrassed. The beauty of this group is the acceptance of cognitive shortcomings and forgetfulness. Anything goes, and most everything goes unnoticed, including a loud, unmistakable fart.

Maturity and self-control were fading quickly.

Rule-following, competitive Charlotte regrouped and focused on her game. It paid off. She had one Bingo after another. However, Carrie FORBID her from declaring them, and stealing a win and a prize from a resident.  It was killing Charlotte. It was killing Dave, too. He repeatedly strolled by, checking Charlotte’s card saying, “If you’ve got it, just call it.”

Each of Charlotte’s undeclared Bingos made the game drag on… and…on. The Grand Finale, the “cover all” round was complete, just as Happy Hour was beginning in the adjoining sunroom.

Woohoo! The party was on the move!  Samantha led the way.

Girls’ day was stretching into girls’ night.

In addition to the selection of beer and wine offered, Mai Tais were being served.  This Happy Hour lacked cosmos and a cheese plate, but no one cared. There was lively conversation, and there were cheese curls!

The girls partied on, until 5:00…… p.m. that is, when suddenly without warning, and without saying “Goodbye” Samantha stood up, walked out of the sunroom, and sauntered down the long hallway.

Samantha had enjoyed enough time with the girls. It was time for dinner, and  BINGO!…. yes, there was a fella she was hoping to run into.

Momma Dogma

Standard

My Mother has always been funny, intuitive, insightful, and not just smart; but wise.

Dementia has changed some of this. She is still very funny, although now her sense of humor varies from childlike, to irreverent and sometimes, unfiltered and downright naughty.

It can be difficult to remember just how smart she was, but I know her wisdom is still in there somewhere; it just isn’t always accessible to her.

She is proud of her five children, and she is amazed that she raised them. She just doesn’t remember how she did it. In the moments when she is aware of her failing memory, it frustrates her.  I tell her that she is a great Mom, she did her job well, and now she has five children to help her remember the things she has forgotten.

“Well, I suppose so.” is her response.

As I remember it, she was never overbearing or terribly opinionated; quite the opposite.  She was pretty easy going and didn’t get too upset about much. She was firm, but she didn’t shout or yell often. Instead, she relied on nonverbal communication: “The Lois Face.”

The Lois Face is not a single expression. It is fluid. A series of quick facial movements: eyebrow raise, lip purse, lip biting, eye closing, lip smacking, eye opening.  Go ahead, try it.

The Lois Face was incredibly effective at instantly conveying complete disapproval. It resulted in that yucky  “uh-oh-I’m-in-trouble-feeling” in the pit of the stomach. She still uses it occasionally, especially if she is feeling bossed around and needs to reassert that she is, in her words, “still the mommie.”

Like all Mothers, there are certain philosophies, guidelines, responses and rules that she repeated through the years, with great conviction.  No one questioned them or disputed them. It is her Momma Dogma.

I’ve compiled a list of my Mother’s classics……before I forget them!

Some of these are quirky, some are completely accurate, and I admit, a few of them have caused me to roll my eyes, after hearing them repeatedly over the years!

Whether they are “right” or not, they still ring in my ears, and I admit….I pretty much live by these rules.

In honor of Mothers Day, I am sharing some of my Mother’s wisdom:

Homemaking

  • When house hunting, picture where the Christmas tree would go
  • When shopping for a new set of dinnerware, picture a fried egg on the plate
  • Don’t buy anything sold door-to-door:  If it was really great, they would sell it in stores
  • Use half the recommended amount of laundry detergent -your clothes will last longer.  They are in the business of selling soap.
  • Put your crystal stemware in the dishwasher: It will be safer than hand washing it and risking knocking it against the side of the sink
  • Get your hands wet, dry them on a rag. That is your dust cloth.
  • If you think it smells funny, just  throw it out. I don’t need to smell it. (I think someone had a weak stomach)

Fashion

  • If it isn’t lined, wear a slip: the skirt will hang better
  • You should wear the dress, the dress shouldn’t wear you
  • If you don’t feel good in it, get rid of it
  • Don’t buy it just because it is on sale
  • Never buy cheap bras
  • Nothing ruins a perfectly nice outfit faster than bad shoes
  • A white blouse makes you feel better
  • Never add lace to the bottom of a hem: It shouts “homemade!” (We used to sew.)
  • January is not a great shopping month – the stores are full of cruise wear

Health

  • Cut yourself? Put Bacitracin and a Band-aid on it.
  • Got a scab? Let it air out, don’t touch it. Just leave it alone!
  • Never pop a blood blister
  • If it hurts when you move it…don’t move it
  • Never eat fruit in the late evening; you’ll have gas during the night
  • Have a stomachache? Lie on your right side
  • Have a fever?  Stay quiet
  • If you are nauseous, drink Pepsi, not 7-up;  the cola will settle your stomach

House Rules

  • Boys are not allowed to sit on the furniture or at the table while shirtless
  • Have you no couth? Please have some decorum! (responses to inappropriate behavior)
  • No grape-flavored chewing gum allowed in the house (now I realize, it does stink)
  • You don’t need a Ken doll. Barbie can play with P.J.
  • Forbidden language (in addition to the big curse words):  stupid, shut-up, oh my god, god dang, butt, sucks, I hate you

Life Observations

  • Bad haircut? It will grow.
  • Why do people pass on a high-priced head of lettuce or cauliflower but will buy a bag of chips for the same price?
  • When men have a cold it is the worst EVER…the only ache or pain we women get to claim all to ourselves is our period.
  • You should never feel guilty. No good ever comes from it.
  • They should allow prayer in public schools. They took prayer out of schools and then what is the first thing they do with the kids after a tragedy…hold prayer circles and prayer vigils.
  • Mr. Business went to church, he never missed a Sunday. Mr. Business went to hell for what he did on Monday. (a reminder that it takes more than going to mass on Sunday.)

.

Now if only I could master “The Lois Face!”

.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Girl Talk

Standard

The earthly world lost a special soul this week. She was loved as a sister, as a Mother by five children and as a Grandma to thirteen grandchildren.  She was Aunt Jan to me, and I was also blessed to have her as my Godmother.

I loved her as well, and I also thought she was just such a neat person. When I was growing up,  it seemed most of the Moms that I knew were reading paperback novels.  Aunt Jan was reading non-fiction. Today with the convenience of Google, we forget that a few decades ago, finding answers and learning about any topic required actual reading; committing to reading an entire book. Imagine! Aunt Jan was a modern woman; always reading something interesting. Many of these selections she shared with my Mom. They could be books on psychology or books that would probably have been found in the “self-improvement” section. Not that either of them needed improving, I think they just enjoyed the enlightenment. After all, this was the era of Phil Donahue!

One reason I thought Aunt Jan was cool, was because I was an animal lover, and she was really the only adult, I knew (other than my parents who were selective animal lovers) who seemed to like animals. Her family had both cats and a dog. Several times when she stopped to see my Mom, she couldn’t stay long, because she had the dog out in the car. These days,  people take their dogs everywhere with them, but back then – not so much. How especially endearing that this always perfectly-dressed-from-head-to-toe  woman loved  snort-y, smush-faced boxers!

She would never believe it, but she was a fashion role model for me. During the early 80’s “Color Me Beautiful” craze, Aunt Jan had her colors “done.” I’m not sure if she was a Spring or a Summer, but she found she looked best in pastels. Not old lady pastels, but elegant ice-y pastels and light neutrals, often worn monochromatically.  She was a beautiful example that you should skip the trends and wear what looks best on you. To this day, when I am shopping and I see something in those colors, I think:  that is an Aunt Jan color. 

The thing I will remember most fondly about my Aunt Jan is the friendship she and my Mom shared. It developed after they married brothers; brothers who who were  the two oldest boys in a family of five children. In old home movie footage, filmed when my Mom and my Aunt Jan were girls in their early twenties, they are  leaning against a dining room wall, laughing together. The laughing continued whenever they were together for almost six decades. They can be seen standing together in candid photos, and standing next to each other in posed group shots.

They shared a special connection in a large family. They each had five children, and they shared the same silly sense of humor. I could always tell when my Mom was talking to Aunt Jan on the telephone.  I loved to hear my Mom hang up the phone and say, “Aunt Jan will be stopping by  in a little bit.” It meant a fun visit was in store. Perhaps they wanted time alone for adult girl talk. Too bad. By the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t missing a minute of it. I loved to listen in on their interesting conversations. They were funny together, and Aunt Jan had the most distinctive, quiet, adorable little giggle.

In the last couple of years,  I shared in their final visits together. My Mom was in the fog of dementia and Aunt Jan was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. I was there, but finally, I didn’t horn in on their girl talk. During our first visit, Aunt Jan was completely focused on my Mom and seemed to hang on her every word. My Mom was suddenly alive, animated and full of conversation. She was able to recall all sorts of memories, and told the stories of their lives to Aunt Jan. Several times, in response to my Mom’s “Remember when we….” Aunt Jan would say a quiet “yes” followed by a faint whisper of that same adorable giggle. Throughout the entire visit, their hands remained clasped together.

After visiting Aunt Jan, my Mom would say, “Gosh, it was just so good to see her. I have really missed her. She and I have had so much fun together over the years.”

It was an unexpected and incredible gift for me to watch these two sisters-in-law and girlfriends connect in a way that can’t be logically explained. I know Aunt Jan didn’t actually recognize my Mom, and my Mom didn’t  fully recognize what was going on with Aunt Jan. But the changes that had taken place in their minds didn’t matter. They had decades of history together, and I believe there was recognition in their  hearts and connection in their souls. I am so thankful I was able to witness it. The memory of that girl talk is a treasure.

While it is comforting to know Aunt Jan is no longer suffering, it certainly doesn’t make it any easier to lose her. She will be missed. In a few days, I know her life will be beautifully celebrated by the loving family she created. How fitting that this will happen during Thanksgiving Week, when we count our blessings.  She was a blessing to many.

She is in now in God’s care. She is reunited in Heaven with her parents and  Jim, her husband of 50 years. She is free of Alzheimer’s.  Those are joyous thoughts.

I also have faith that her giggle is fully restored, and that makes me smile.

She’s Such A Doll!

Standard

My 82-year old Mother has a lifelong gal pal named Susie. They are about the same age, however Susie looks decades younger. In fact, she is positively ageless. Susie was a fixture in our home during my childhood, and after all these years, they are still inseparable.

My Mom’s voice is strong and she is very conversational and pleasant.  Susie may have retained her girlish appearance, however her voice is weak. You have to listen closely to hear what she says, and frankly, her vocabulary is pretty limited.

Susie’s given name was Mary Ann, but my Mom has always called her Susie. While she is not a blood relative, there is a strong family resemblance. In fact, she has my Grandmother’s hair. Seriously…..she literally has my Grandmother’s hair. Ten inches of auburn tresses, that were once Thelma’s crowning glory, have remained sewn onto and fairly neatly coiffed on Susie’s head for almost 80 years. Yes, it’s true, Susie is a doll.

As freakish as it may sound, dolls with wigs made of human hair were not uncommon in the early part of the 20th Century. Plastics hadn’t expanded to the toy industry, so many dolls had yarn for hair. Knowing how creative and artistic my Grandmother Thelma was, I can imagine how tickled she must have been when she was able to use her own hair to give her little girl’s doll a head full of luxurious, real hair.  It was a “locks of love” gesture of a different kind.

The novelty of Susie’s hair is what saved her from the trash or donation bag as my Mom grew older.  Susie even spent a few years in my bedroom with my Raggedy Ann, when I was a girl. Many years ago, long before the onset of my Mom’s dementia, Raggedy Ann made her way cross-country to me, along with the pink antique doll bed from my Mom’s childhood. Susie wasn’t in the box. I was surprised she hadn’t made the trip, but Mom wasn’t ready to part with her.

Two years ago, as her dementia started to progress, my Mom was in perpetual motion, cleaning closets and drawers, and purging clutter. Her lovely assisted living apartment, tidy by anyone’s standards, was constantly “just a mess” as far as she was concerned. Dementia patients sometimes react to the clutter in their mind, by trying to de-clutter their surroundings. She had lost the ability to recognize the monetary or sentimental value of her possessions. It was stunning to hear about the items recovered from her trash, by a sharp, honest, and caring member of the housekeeping staff. Despite all the “clean sweeps,” somehow,  Susie survived.

Eight months ago, Susie made the move with my Mom to the Care Facility where she now resides. My mom enjoys walking down the hall to happy hour and playing bingo. She used to enjoy listening to music; was a self-professed news-junkie; enjoyed watching her “story”  and always tuned into whatever the current major sporting event happened to be.  Now she spends a lot of  time in her softly lit room without the background music of Frank Sinatra or the TV tuned to current events on CNN.

Yes, sometimes the television is off  because she’s hidden the remote control in a drawer and has forgotten about it.  More often, it is because the noise of life is too much stimulation for her brain that is working hard to sort out things. As sad  as it can be for me to think of her sitting quietly in her room with the draperies closed on a sunny day, I know that sometimes, this is how she is most comfortable. When I call my Mom on the telephone and ask what she is doing, sometimes she says with a chuckle, “Oh, I’m just awfully busy!”  She’ll continue, “Not really.  I feel like I should be doing something, but I’m not sure what that is. Until I figure it out, I’m just sitting here relaxing. It’s just Susie and me.” So there Mom sits in her favorite chair, with Susie over on the sofa.

After my last trip to the Midwest, I thought Susie  needed a new dress and shoes. I couldn’t remember what type of doll she was. I dispatched my brother (recently celebrated during Jubilee Week) to do some investigating. I knew the pertinent info was somewhere on Susie’s body. A few days later after having lunch with Mom, he reported back:  Mission accomplished.  Susie is an Effanbee Lovums Mary Ann doll. Thankfully, no one saw him examining Susie, so there won’t be rumors circulating amongst the nurses and aides about Lois’s son:  you know, the pervy one who plays with dolls?

I should clarify that my Mom isn’t actually playing with Susie either. In her words, she  hasn’t “completely lost it!” I believe Susie is much more than a toy, anyway. Susie is a symbol of a mother’s love for a daughter. She is a link to the childhood years that are clear in memory, amid a lifetime that is sometimes forgotten. She is a source of familiar reassurance when things seem  confusing. She represents family (well, they do share DNA) when she feels disconnected.

For me, Susie reaffirms that while aging and dementia may have changed my Mom, altered her behavior and the way she is able to interact with us;  dementia doesn’t change who she is. Dementia has already taken much from her, but it can never steal her heart. When I look at a photo of  a young Lois Ann posing with Susie, I easily recognize a familiar mannerism of my Mother’s. Her arm is wrapped around the doll, and her hand is relaxed with her thumb tucked between her index and middle fingers. My Mom surely sat this way with her children, as I have seen her as Grandma Loie sit this way with her grandchildren. A lifetime of dogs sat in that spot and received countless pats on the head as well. The little girl in the old photo, and the 82-year old Mother I know now, share the same heart as the smart, funny and oh-so-wise Lois who raised me.

When I look at the old photo I also wonder what ever happened to that cool rattan settee.

Even knowing Susie’s pedigree, it has been difficult to determine her dress size. A few days ago, my sister took a tape measure with her when she went to see Mom. Mom asked her what she was doing, and my sister explained that I wanted to know how long Susie is. My mom corrected her, “You mean how tall she is?” As my sister wrapped the tape measure around Susie, Mom again asked what she was doing. My sister explained she was measuring Susie’s chest. “That’s her waist!”  Mom interjected. In my sister’s defense, Susie is a petite gal. She may be a bit short-waisted as a result of her 22″ stature.

So, the hunt for a new, age appropriate outfit for Susie continues. It will be a well-deserved rejuvenation to match her renewed importance. In the circle of my Mom’s life, she once again refers to herself as Lois Ann, and her little corner of the world is once again only a bedroom. I am so thankful that Susie and her angelic little face are still around to finish the journey.  It is at once miraculous, blessed, and magical.

Sweetie Pie

Standard

 

This weekend marks what would have been the occasion of my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary.

My parents missed out on celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary  as many of my friends’ parents have been blessed to do this year. Their 34th anniversary was actually the last one they celebrated together because my Dad, Art died in 1986.

My Mother is 82. This smart, funny, and oh, so wise woman now lives in a care facility due to rapidly progressing dementia. Her short-term memory is completely gone. Confusion is pretty constant. Sometimes she is frustrated with her  “remember-er” that doesn’t quite work right.  Her life events are in a jumbled order. Overall, she is content and pleasant despite things being foggy for her.

One thing she remembers very clearly, however, is being madly in love with Art. She has a large framed photo of him, the love of her life, her Sweetie Pie. She hugs the photo and remarks about how crazy she was about him. She loved him with a heart and a half, she says.

I love to hear the story of how she met the love of her life. The thing about her dementia is, I can ask her the same questions every day, and it is like the first time she has heard them. She never tires of telling the story:

She was working as a nurse at a Catholic Hospital. She was from the  South Side, a Presbyterian not Catholic. Her fellow nurses were graduates of the Catholic High School. One day, she overheard them talking about a tonsillectomy patient they knew. Obviously, this was long before the existence of HIPPA. Surely, they must have been talking about how handsome he was, because she immediately went into the patient’s room and introduced herself. She liked him right away.

Eventually, he asked for her number. How confident he must have been, asking for her number while lying there wearing a hospital gown! Once discharged, he called her and asked for a date. Her mother thought this was inappropriate and told her she couldn’t go. After all, she was dating a fellow named Ned. Ned drove a convertible and happened to be a fantastic dancer, my Mother remembers.

A week later, Art was readmitted to the hospital with complications. Mom was “floating” – working where needed in the hospital.  As fate would have it, she was assigned to the floor he was admitted to, and was his nurse. This time, he went home and told his mother he’d met the cutest little nurse with the prettiest brown eyes. My mother went home and broke it off with poor Ned.  Art again asked her out, and this time she said yes.

I continue to ask, “What happened next, Mom?”

She recounts the events of 1950 in vivid detail:

Their first date was a picnic.

He was romantic.

She met his parents, Bill & Georgia.

They lived on Crescent

His brother Don was really young, only 10.

“What happened next, Mom?”

Lately, she replies, “Well, we went our separate ways. We never married or had children or anything. Boy, I sure would like to see him again!”

WOW! So in my Mother’s mind, Art is the one who got away!

In reality, the first weekend they went out, they knew they would marry, and he proposed just 2 weeks after their first date. She joined the Catholic Church and in 1951, they married.

They enjoyed 34 happy years together. Believe me, when I say, my parents were happy together.  They really never argued. Oh, to be sure, he pissed her off occasionally, especially if he messed with her cooking. He was known to sneak lemon flavoring into any baking recipe and added way too much black pepper to anything anyone was cooking. Funny, though, I don’t recall him ever being even the least bit miffed at her.

She has no memory of Art being the father of her five children. This is confounding to me, because at least for now, she still knows all her children and their spouses by name, as well as her grandchildren and their spouses, for that matter. Dementia is a puzzle.

You might think it would be sad to realize that she has no memory of her life with my Dad, or the fact that she has no memory of who our Father is. However, I’m a glass-half-full-silver-lining-look-at-the-bright-side-kind-of-girl. So for me, the fact that this huge chunk of her life has completely disappeared from her memory is not entirely sad. I have found an upside.

The beauty of dementia is that for my mother, the pain has all disappeared. The sudden and tragic loss of my Dad at the age of 54, is forgotten. This event that shook and forever changed our family doesn’t exist for her. The loneliness of being the “first” widow isn’t even a distant memory.  She doesn’t reflect on missing out on the joy of retirement with my Dad. For her there is no bitter, only sweet.

Many long-married couples have to make an effort to keep the so-called magic alive. Even some young couples struggle to remember the spark that originally ignited their courtship. Not so for my Mother.  All she has is the memory of the spark, the romance and of course, the love.  While she may not know today is her 61st wedding anniversary, or be able to remember it, no matter how many times she is told; she is a living example of the POWER of love. As cliché as it may sound, when all is said and done, really, all that remains is the love.  We know love never dies. Through my mother, I have learned it will NOT be forgotten.

“Did you ever meet him, the big guy?” She asks.

I tell her that I did meet him, and I do remember him.  And then, as I tell her I really do think she will see the love of her life again one day…selfishly, I silently hope it is not too terribly soon.