Missing the ‘Old Life’

“What do you miss most about your “old life”? 

Michelle Daly posed this question for caregivers on a recent blog post. It’s hard for me to choose just one thing, so I’ll mention the ones that come to mind first.

I miss sleep. Uninterrupted sleep. I’ve been sleeping with a video baby monitor on my nightstand long enough now that I’m learning to tune out Momma’s “normal” noises and harmless sundowning activities, such as rearranging her drawers and taking inventory of the contents of her purse. I have learned to tune into her needs, such as times when she needs extra help in the bathroom, or when she’s afraid and confused. So, I am getting more sleep, but uninterrupted, monitor-less sleep would be nice.

Me and my guy

I miss impromptu ANYthing, but especially the little spur of the moment daytrips with my hubby. Those days when we would just hop in the car and end up at Devil’s Lake for a hike, or down on the UW Campus on one of the walking paths, or just meandering through an out of the way garden center. Fun times.

Momma loves Pastor Jeremy and his family!

I miss having people over for dinner. But I’m working on that one. Momma’s usually social self is impaired by her Alzheimer’s frets and fears, making taking her anywhere a chore and very stressful for her. But, the hostess in her loves to have people come and visit with us over lunch or supper, so I’m trying to incorporate more social time with others into our week. Last night our friends Jeremy and Anouk came over for a pizza night with their two children, Mia and Isaiah. Such fun!

A blast from our past – my twisty grandgirls

But what do I miss most? If pressed, I’d have to say “time with my grandkids” is the thing I miss the most. No more impromptu slumber parties, ‘Fun Fridays’, trips to the library, or excursions to the zoo or a nearby park that usually end with a trip to Culver’s for frozen custard.

Violet & Charlie in a friendly game of Othello

Tonight four of my grandkids came over for pie and ice-cream and a little visit. From the moment they walked in the door with their mom and dad, they were clamoring over what we would DO together.  The grandsons wasted no time in pulling out some classic board games. The boys took turns playing “Battleship!” with me, with George getting a little help from big sister Violet. Later, our five-year-old George brought out a chess set and asked for help in playing it. Even though this particular chess set has a few pieces missing, his Papa and Daddy helped him learn to make moves and we delighted in his gloating over captured pieces. Granddaughter Violet and her brother Charlie played ‘Othello,’ another favorite game of strategy. I even got in a few hands of ‘War’ with Henry. When I wasn’t playing one of the games, I was just watching and smiling…beaming, actually.

Momma and her little friend Mia enjoy coloring together.

I love these times with family and friends, and wish there were more of them and that they could be longer. But tonight, I’m just grateful for our little get-togethers. Momma loves to color and will gladly share her coloring books and colored pencils with her great-grands and little friends. Seeing children laugh and try new things brings a quiet joy to her eyes. The memory of their visit will soon disappear, but the contentment and joy linger in her heart just a little longer.

Are You the One in Charge Here?

Lately, my sweet mother has been more than a bit confused about her living accommodations, referring to our home as “this facility” and “this place.” Not long ago, she swept her hand out in gesture as if encompassing her living space and said, “Are you the one in charge of this place?” I told her yes it was our home and that Wayne and I both welcome her to live here. “Oh,” she replied, “are my meals and laundry included?” I assured her that they were. To which she replied, “Well, they haven’t fed me all day, and I think they’re stealing my laundry. I can’t find it anywhere.”

Not long ago, she was telling Wayne that “someone who works here” had given her some pills. She wasn’t sure who it was, but figured they knew what they were doing, so she took them. It was Tylenol, and it was me giving them to her just moments ago. Oh, and the “people who clean this place” and do the gardening around here just aren’t doing their job. The floors are always dusty. The gardens have so many weeds. “You should talk to them,” she insists.

I can watch Momma’s nighttime activity on a WiFi video monitor that sits on my nightstand. That’s a blessing because I know when she needs something…and a curse because sleep is interrupted quite often. On a few occasions, I’ve come down in the middle of the night to check on Momma because I could see on my monitor that she was crying. Sometimes it’s just confusion about where she is, but oftentimes it is her worrying about how she is going to pay for this place when she can no longer work and earn money. She’ll sometimes tell me that “they” are going to kick her out when her money runs out. On those occasions, I’ll sit with her for awhile and reassure her that she is loved, that she is retired and has plenty of funds, and that we will always take care of her no matter what.

One of Momma’s blue pots

Momma can make you smile with her wild tales about how she came to live here. On Saturday, a friend from church and her two young daughters spent the morning with Momma so that I could attend a Bible Conference with my husband. They had a delightful time, but, oh, the stories Momma told them while I was away. She enjoyed telling how this house was hers and that she shared it with us, describing how we had divided it up into her side and our side. And, of course, she had planted the gardens, adding to them over the years. (Mind you, she has only lived here since May!) She even shared with the girls that she had made her three blue flower pots when she was in kindergarten!

Of course, all of this is very real in Momma’s mind. That’s just a little taste of the confusion and disorientation that happens with the progression of Alzheimer’s. Not only is Mom confused about her accommodations, but also about the relationship of people to her.

“Mr. Winquist” and yours truly

Most days, she still knows us. Wayne is often referred to as “Mr. Winquist” – her term of endearment for him. Other days (mostly in the evenings), in her mind, I’m her sister Carolyn. As we look through picture albums or recall stories from her childhood, she tells tales of her youth as if I had been there too, sparing me the details with, “Well, you know. You were there too.”

My sister has been coming every other week or so to stay with Momma for a few days so I can get a little down-time. A few hours before each visit, I remind her that her daughter Vivian is coming. Sometimes she’ll give me a quizzical look and ask, “So, help me remember. Is Vivian my daughter? Or is she your daughter?”

On one of Viv’s recent visits, Momma came out of the bathroom and was looking for her Mom. Rather than remind her that her mother has been deceased for many years, Viv just went along with her and said, “Your Mom is not here right now. Can I help you with something?” Mom replied, “I just need to find my Mom.” I peeked my head out of the laundry room door and waved. Momma spied me and said, “There she is!”

So, in my mother’s mind right now, I’m her mother. That’s okay by me. She took good care of me for many years. Now, in this circle of life, it’s my turn to take good care of her.

 

“So, how many names should I put in the pot?”

The phone rang on Saturday morning. I answered, already knowing it was my dear mother, and I could almost guess what she would ask. She had a hair appointment every Saturday morning and would go grocery shopping on her way home. “So, how many names should I put in the pot?” That was mom’s way of asking us to come over for dinner.

It was our family tradition most Saturday evenings when our children were tweens and teens. Sometimes we’d hop on our bikes and pedal the 3 miles over to my parents’ home. Other times we’d pile the kids and the dogs in our car or mini-van and make the short drive to Mom and Dad’s place. Our Cocker Spaniels would be hanging their heads out the window, long ears flapping in the wind, their little nugget tails a waggin’, sniffing the air, and dancing with excitement when they sensed we were to Grandma’s street. Sometimes we’d purposely drive by the 105th Street turn-off and the dogs (one dog in particular) would cry and whine until we made a U-turn and turned on the right street. Momma would always have a treat for those granddogs…and they knew it. Sometimes just a dog biscuit or two (my dad always lost count of how many dog biscuits he’d toss them), or a little rawhide chew, other times a pig’s ear for each of them (their favorite)!

And Momma always had something delicious for us. Her barbecue spare ribs were fall off the bone scrumptious, and she made a homemade potato salad that became one of her most-requested recipes. She sometimes made a casserole we all liked; usually something she called Yumasetta (said to be an Amish recipe), or a taco-ish dish covered in Frito’s corn chips, or “Hearty Beef N Potato Casserole,” a recipe that was served at a Christmas luncheon at her church in 1986. On a hot summer’s eve, she made this seafood pasta salad that was better than any I have ever had. Oh, and her potato soup. Oh, my! Her creamy potato soup was SO good that our daughter Beth wanted it on her 15th birthday menu – along with crescent rolls (from a can), deviled eggs, and cherry juice!

Sometimes I’d bring a side dish or a dessert, but Momma usually told me I didn’t need to bring a thing. “Just bring yourselves,” she’d say. I think the kids preferred when I didn’t bring dessert because they knew they could count on Grandma having a favorite treat in her freezer – a Klondike ice-cream bar, which can best be described as a huge chunk of ice cream covered in a thick shell of chocolate. And if Grandma was out of ice cream, Grandpa Boyles could be counted on for a cookie (he always kept a stash in a Tupperware by the back door to share with the kids in the neighborhood, who sometimes affectionately called my kind-hearted dad “Cookie Monster.”)

We’d usually just watch a favorite television show or two together. I can’t remember what all we watched, but recall “The Dukes of Hazard” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” being part of the line-up at one time or another. I mostly remember the lovely feeling of coming home to the house I grew up in, and being thankful that our children had grandparents close by – something I didn’t have when I was growing up.

I have a few of Momma’s favorite recipes filed away in my recipe box. I can almost duplicate her creamy potato soup, but have never come close to duplicating her potato salad. Nowadays, Momma no longer cooks, as I wrote about in my story, “When the Good Cook Can’t” some time ago.

Yes, the table has definitely turned. Momma now lives with us and enjoys meals at our table. My children are all grown up and have homes and families of their own. Now they pile their own kids in their own mini-vans (no dogs, though) and come over and cook for her too, as they have opportunity. We are so thankful that we can do this for her as she wrestles with memory loss related to Alzheimer’s.

Momma, now it’s our honor and privilege to return the abundant blessings you lovingly showered upon us. May we be as gracious, open-hearted, and generous as you.

Setting the Caregiving Stage

I love to get my hands and feet dirty. Try as I might, I can’t seem to keep my shoes or gloves on when I garden. I guess I’m a tactile sort of person who enjoys the feeling of the warm earth squishing between my toes or sifting through my fingers. I try my best to make things grow, but know in my heart that very little of it is up to me.

Landscape designer Tish Treherne wrote an article for Sunset magazine that I really enjoyed. Tish wrote about how she designed her personal garden space around their gorgeous waterfront home. She likes to keep things slightly wild looking by “loosely layering unfussy perennials.” I love her garden design philosophy and enjoyed reading her description of how the plants she chose nestle into one another like puzzle pieces to create a seemingly effortless whole. 

I start planning my garden in the dead of Wisconsin’s winter when the first seed catalog comes in the mail. I get out my Sharpie marker and circle the flowers that capture my attention in the catalog pages and dream about where I’d put them in the garden. I get out my garden journal and jot down a few notes about what I’d like to plant, what I want to move, which plants I’d like to dig out, and what I’d like to purchase.

Whether shopping by catalog, or cruising the aisles of my favorite garden centers, I pay attention to the description of each plant, determining whether I have adequate space or light, or whether I’m in the right planting zone. My dear husband fully supports my need for dirt therapy, allowing me to add to my cart whatever little lovely attracts my eye.

Bug-infested Roses

Even with careful planning, planting and faithful watering, not all of my plantings survive. I have lost count of how many failed butterfly bush and clematis vines I have planted. Likewise, each tulip and daffodil bulb I plant in the fall holds the promise of a gorgeous bloom to follow in the spring, but not all of the bulbs I plant make it. Winters can be harsh, Springs too wet or too hot, cute little critters eat my plants and bulbs, disease strikes, insects munch away. Like Tish said in her wonderful article,

“You’re setting the stage as a designer, but you don’t have total control over what’s going to happen.”  ~Tish Treherne

I often draw parallels for life from my garden, and Tish’s philosophy holds true on that front as well. As I seek to take care of my mother’s increasing needs for care, I am just setting the stage as a designer. With the help of our family, my husband and I turned our dining room into a lovely bedroom for her. She has a special spot at our kitchen table where she can watch the birds and view the gardens. We make sure she has meals that are reasonably healthy, treats that make her life enjoyable. I make sure she receives appropriate medical and dental care, and that she is adequately clothed and groomed. We try our best to ensure her safety by putting up baby gates, installing handrails, building half-steps, using video monitoring systems while she sleeps, and making sure someone is with her 24-hours a day.

I can design a stage for her care, but I do not have total control over what’s going to happen. She may take a fall. She will undoubtedly get a urinary tract infection and have hallucinations which will keep her (and us) awake. If this disease takes the usual sad course, she will lose the ability to walk, talk, swallow, toilet herself, or perform even the most basic of personal care. I have absolutely no control over her future. I have no idea what even this day will bring forth. But God does, and He will give me wisdom for the next step of Momma’s life journey…and mine.

In the meanwhile, we will enjoy the flowers that survived, each moment of restful sleep, the birds playing in the fountain, the September breezes, porch-sittin’ days, visits from family and friends, knees that are sorta working today, and all the other beautiful daily benefits that come from God’s storehouse of blessings.

 

Honoring Your Parents: Nursing Home or Your Home?

Caring for my Momma in our home was a relatively easy decision, although the path toward making that decision was anything but as it took many twists and turns along the way. From the earliest days of traveling back and forth between Fitchburg and Milwaukee, to moving her closer to us, God has always been faithful in shedding light on the next step we need to take in our caregiving journey.

At first, we wanted to make an addition on our home for her – a first floor granny suite. Our local senior center’s social worker, along with our elder care law attorney, both agreed that this sort of building project was an appropriate use of her financial resources. Should we ever have to “spend down” her resources in order to satisfy Medicaid guidelines, they assured us that the expense would be allowable and justifiable. So, we did a little homework by getting an estimate for making an accessible one-bedroom plus a bath addition. To say we experienced “sticker shock” would be an understatement.

I was disappointed. Very disappointed. I cried. A lot.

IMG_2006Having nixed the expensive addition idea, we decided that keeping Momma in her nearby senior apartment under our close supervision was still the best option. With the assistance of family, an occasional friend, 11 hours of professional caregiving a week, and well-placed wi-fi cameras, we made it work. Then, about five months into this arrangement, a recurrent battle with a urinary tract infection resulted in hallucinations, alarming behavior, and plenty of evidence that Momma needed more care.

It seemed impossible to keep her at our house. Our bedrooms were on the second floor. We only had a small half-bath on the first floor. A sunken-living room became a fall hazard. The half-bath would barely be walker-assisted navigable. There were too many obstacles, so I moved in with her to help with daily needs.

moms room
Our dining room turned bedroom

Well, after 8 months of that, Momma took an ambulance ride to a nearby hospital and life changed once again. As I stayed with her in her hospital room, painfully aware that she couldn’t go back to her apartment, I prayerfully turned the various options over in my heart and mind. My husband was doing the same thing. When we sat down to chat about it, we realized we were on the same page. We were going to make room for her in our home. We would make it work by turning our dining room into a bedroom for her. You can read more about that here.

As I continue to blog and share my journey in caring for my mother, I am learning that I am not alone in making difficult decisions related to caring for an aging parent. I have a number of friends who are caring for one or both parents. Some have decided that their loved one would receive better care in a retirement home, assisted living, or skilled nursing facility. I support them in that decision, knowing it was reached prayerfully and with great deliberation.

As a daughter seeking to provide compassionate and God-honoring care for my mother in my home, I found the biblical insight of a podcast I listened to today to be very helpful. The realization that I may need to make a decision in the future that would mean my mother would no longer be cared for in our home becomes more intense with each day that passes. I thought I’d share the link to Desiring God Ministry’s “Ask Pastor John” series on the subject of “Retirement Homes and Caring for Aging Parents.”  The information he shared confirmed in my heart and mind that I am doing the right thing for the right purposes and, should her needs change, I will not be dishonoring my mom by placing her in a facility where she will receive appropriate care.

I encourage you to click on the link above to access the podcast, but let me leave you, dear reader, with a tiny bit that was especially encouraging to me.

Are we ready to make sacrifices for our parents? Or are we resentful that they are becoming a burden? That’s the real test. All of this may or may not mean that the parents come to live with us or near us. There are innumerable variables that make one situation right for one family and another situation right for another.

Fidelity Viewpoint – Managing Cognitive Decline

This is a helpful reminder for those who are helping family members with cognitive challenges and for those of us who might start to struggle at some point in the future. I am thankful that my wife’s mother recognized that she needed help and then accepted help. Her financial “advisors” were not doing a good job and they were charging her for the work they were doing. We made changes together while she was still able to make decisions regarding her future. Now she is no longer able to do that. She was wise to act when she could and set in place the right legal documents with her attorney’s help.

Read this article for more helpful information:

Managing cognitive decline

Wisdom from the Lips of a Child

The grandkids had all gone home and I had completed my post-grandkid visit tidying up routine: making beds, putting art supplies away, cleaning fingerprints off the glass-top coffee table, sweeping up crumbs from under the table, and the like. Even though it is a lot of work, it was good to have four of my grandchildren keeping me company while my husband was away on a little trip helping our son get his new home’s interior repainted.
George being George

Sandwiched in between taking care of my sweet Momma, our day together was filled with coloring to our hearts’ content, painting with my oldest granddaughter, baking, building roads and castles with good old-fashioned blocks, vintage Lite Brite artistry, feeding marbles to toy dinosaurs, sorting through a jar of old buttons and playing “favorites,” and creating fun designs with Perler beads. And for the three grandsons…taking a bath in Grandma’s HUGE bathtub…with bubbles and dinosaurs, of course!

Grand-cleaner Violet

Even cleaning was fun when my granddaughter Violet pitched in to help me clean her Papa’s office. Grandson Charlie even earned a little pocket change by dodging mosquitoes to help me pick raspberries and blueberries.

Though my Momma looks forward to the visits of her great-grandkids, the change in the level of activity always brings a certain level of stress to her Alzheimer’s plagued mind. She worried about a lot of things while they were here. Everything from whether or not they should be outside playing, to wondering what dangers lurk behind the basement door (it’s a playroom for the children). When I had put the boys to bed, she wandered around the house looking out of the windows counting and wondering if everyone was inside yet. But, even with all the stress (exacerbated by her usual sundowning), it was good for her too with coloring projects, crafts, meal-time chatter, and conversations with her great-grands providing a temporary distraction from her own problems.
Artist Henry

It was also good for the great-grandchildren. In ways big and small, they contributed to caring for their great-grandmother; from speaking up so that GGma could hear them, to answering the same question five or more times (and not looking annoyed). Great-granddaughter Violet has developed a very keen ability to discern what her GGma needs or wants. On this visit, her great-grandma was in a circular worrisome thought pattern, fretting about what still might need to be accomplished on a to-do list she found on the kitchen table (it was actually MY to-do list). Violet brought out a photo album and placed it in front of her great-grandma, then sat next to her and began to help her page through the book. As GGma talked about the pages, Violet discreetly slipped the to-do list away. A more graceful (and thoughtful) act of redirection could not have been accomplished by someone two or three times Violet’s age.

Unfortunately, Momma’s battle with Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point we can no longer leave her alone (and I don’t have room for all 6 of us in our car – and, even if I did have room, Momma resists leaving the house). For some reason, even though we have fun together, I feel really bad when the grandkids come and we can’t “go” anywhere. But our oldest grandson set me straight when he candidly told me,
“Grandma, I love coming to your house so much. I love it more than all my toys and video games stacked on top of each other!”
My Charlie

My daughter assures me that stacked up against video games, this is a VERY high compliment.

Well, that heart-melting comment from my 8-year-old little love reminded me that, with a little bit of effort, I can still create some memory-making moments with my grandchildren while caring for my sweet mother. Of course root-beer floats for an after-supper treat and pancakes for breakfast didn’t hurt a bit in the ratings department.