I saw my mom in her new place for the first time right before Thanksgiving last year. She was moved into a memory care facility last summer. She’s in Southern California, and I live in Texas, so this has been the first chance I’ve had to get to see her. Honestly, I had two previous chances, but I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to know what shape she’s in, or how she’s responding. I was a complete coward about it.
This time, though, I forced myself to take time off work early. She’s in Corona, and my office is in Irvine, it’s not a horrible drive when there’s no traffic, but at the wrong time of day, it can be brutal. My meetings ended around 2, so I took the chance to leave and go see my mom. It was only a 30-minute drive from my office.
I didn’t know what to expect. I haven’t spent much time in any type of rest home. My grandparents never went into one. My grandfather died of a massive heart attack when he was 76. My grandmother eventually moved into an assisted living community, but she had her own house, it wasn’t a rest home like this. As I wrote about a little while ago, my mom has dementia. She had started to repeat stories to me over the past few years, but nothing too serious. When my dad passed away in July of 2017, something broke within her. Even though they hadn’t been together for 15 years, her grief brought on a change. At first, the doctors said that when the trauma passed, she’d be back to nearly normal. The trauma hasn’t passed. My dad is still dead.
She told me that she loved my dad since she was 16 years old. There’s no way to repair a life-long love affair like that. Incidentally, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard my mom say she loved my dad. There has been a fundamental change in my mom.
When I checked in, the attendant knew that I must be there to see my mom. “You look like her,” she said. Already, I felt better. She knew my mom. She said, “She likes to walk.” That’s what ultimately got her in there, to begin with. We tried to care for her between my brother and sister, but she would wake up at night, disoriented and afraid, and run away. She’s spry at 79 years old.
There was a bingo game going on in the “town hall” as they call it. I immediately recognized my mom, nearly front and center.
I was afraid of the worst. Seeing her upright and engaging already had my hopes up. Somewhere in my psyche, I had an image of her in bed, with tubes sticking out here and there, like an animal on life support.
That was not my mom. I walked over and put my hand on her shoulder, “Hi Mom,” I said. It only took a second for her to realize it was me. I’m the baby of the family. I spent the most time with her growing up. We went through the hardest times of the family together. Just the two of us. For years. Since I had no way to get a message to her that I was coming, and indeed, I was being a complete ninny about facing the reality of my mom being in a home, she wasn’t expecting me. She jumped up and hugged me and immediately started crying.
I get my emotional side from my mom, no doubt.
I was relieved. She looked great. I had heard that people who get dementia stop caring for themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom without her hair dyed or her makeup on to some extent. I didn’t know what to expect. She looked better than I could have imagined. And she’s still spry. We walked around the facility, and she showed me where she walks outside and started talking about things she does and what she sees.
I could see that the place was safe for her, and it was helping. She was engaging with other people here, which she wouldn’t do at her house. She would just lock herself in her house and get more and more paranoid. We’re finding all these things out about dementia these days, indeed about everything. 90% of the scientists who ever lived are alive today. Social interaction is one of the things that we as humans seem to need to be healthy. Seeing her engaged and playing a game was a new experience. I’m sure for her as well.
But, I could also immediately see why she had to be there. She was confused. She said, “Are we going home now?” I went back and forth between just ignoring her version of the world and trying to gently correct her. At one point I asked her if she had a room here, and she couldn’t remember where it was. I helped her find it, I wanted to see where she was staying, too, again fearing the worst. We found it, and she had a key on a lanyard around her neck. She showed me her little one bedroom and bathroom. It was a little bigger than a hospital room, but not sterile like a hospital. It had some things from her house. It was spartan but not sparse. She seemed to like it.
We sat and talked for a while. She came into and out of lucidity several times. She knows she has dementia, and it frustrates her. The crazy thing about the brain is what it latches on to and what it forgets. She remembers every house we ever lived in and details about them that I didn’t even remember. But she also “remembered” that her favorite painting reminded her of the house her and my dad lived in Atlanta before all the kids were born. That never happened. She lived in Atlanta as a small child. My dad was nowhere near Atlanta, he was in Missouri and Kansas back in those days. They met in the San Fernando Valley in California in the 50s.
Worse than losing her memory, her mind has filled the gaps with fiction. Just as believable as the truth, especially to a damaged brain. Have you ever had a dream so real that you thought it had actually happened? Of course, you have. Imagine that confusion all day long.
She bounced in and out of clarity, in and out of understanding, but my mom is still there. Her personality is still there. She laughed at my jokes and even made a comment about me being the only one who can pull her out of a funk. That was what I was good at. Cheering my mom up. I learned it when I was 13 or so, and never lost it. I just wish I lived closer now so I could see her more often. At best, I can get back once each month. I wasn’t able to see her over the holidays, and I feel guilty about it.
I’m relieved that my mom is safe, but I can’t tell how long it will be until she no longer knows who I am. There were times, mostly when she had to introduce me to someone, where she was confused. She’d try to be subtle and let me introduce myself. She’s clearly been like this longer than we thought because if I wasn’t paying attention and looking for signs of memory loss, I would have missed a lot of those indicators. Any stress makes it worse.
I’m torn. I’m happy she’s healthy and in a safe place. I’m sad because she’s living with constant frustration. She went back and forth between asking me when we were “going home” to when my sister was coming to get her, to if she should stay here for good, or just go back to her house. “I don’t sleep here,” she told me. She does. Right before dinner was served, she told me, she needed to get outside. She had closed the blinds in her room, and I think the isolation led to a pretty serious bout of confusion. It’s called “Sundowning.” It reminded me of how I wake up in a hotel in the middle of a deep dream, not knowing where I am, or even sometimes, who I am. We went outside and she said, “Do you know where your car is?” She was ready for me to leave. Dinner was ready, and I could see the routine calling her. “That’s my spot there, and if I don’t get it, that evil bitch will get it.”
I giggled, that’s my mom. She’s as tough as nails and as mean as a rattlesnake if she doesn’t like you. She said bye to me three times, with one eye on me, and one eye on whoever she was worried about taking her spot. One of the coordinators came over and helped, and she walked me out. We had a long talk about my mom, and I can’t tell whether she was speaking the truth or not. I get my inherent distrust of people from my mother, clearly. But she made me feel good. They are taking care of her, and the facility was clean, and everyone looked well cared for. My mom struck me as one of the most healthy and mobile people in there.
“She’s not good with people,” I told the coordinator. “You’d be surprised,” she responded. She showed me the crafts they all had made. They make products for the holidays and sell them for a pittance. I was reminded of the scene in Happy Gilmore where Ben Stiller is making the old ladies hit a quota of quilts and hand-made goods. I can’t help myself, the cynicism runs deep.
“My mom is doing crafts?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said again.
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