From April through the summer, my eighty-nine year old mom seemed to be failing. My brother Josh and I saw distinct changes in her behavior. She was withdrawn, would not interact with family who made special efforts to visit, would not speak to friends when we took her to their home for tea, was sleeping or staring into space at the dinner table, was careless about her personal grooming and toilet habits. What to do, what to do? We feared dementia was setting in, but were afraid that making a fuss about our observations would just make Mom worry. We decided that we needed to know if there was a physical problem and took the chance to insist that her doctors run tests.
Mom endured the challenges of a brain scan (MRI,) and psych workup. The doctors said “there’s nothing wrong.” What to do, what to do? We couldn’t just sit by and let Mom slip away, could we? Josh and I knew that depression was a factor. Mom was well into her second year of widowhood and wouldn’t consider bereavement counseling. Nothing could fill the hole in her heart and her life that was left when her partner of 65+ years departed.
Josh convinced Mom’s primary care physician to reduce her blood pressure medicine. Perhaps that was causing some of the fatigue. We looked into alternative anti-depressants, but decided not to change too many meds at one time. Right or wrong? Who knew? Concluding that isolation was a huge factor influencing Mom’s attitude toward life, I went into action to find an appropriate, affordable, and accessible senior activity center she could attend. I rejected the closest town and county run senior centers because Mom would be unable to ride a bus, even a senior bus, by herself. Those centers are for more able seniors, even if Mom could get there, she’d be unlikely to join in the activities. She’s too shy by nature and was too impaired at the time.
Finally, after much surfing and phoning, I settled on a medical model adult daycare center in Huntington, in the next county east. Mom would still have to ride a van, a good half hour trip from home, but the driver would pick her up and drop her off at her front door. Was it the right place? The right program? The right thing to do? Josh and I visited the site when I was in New York at the end of August and then Josh made a heroic effort to adjust his work schedule to allow him to be home when the driver knocks and to adjust Mom’s aides’ schedules to assure someone is there to receive her when she returns. Would this work? Were we spitting into the wind, forcing Mom to do something she didn’t want to or wouldn’t be able to do?
In September when the kids went back to school, Mom went into the program and came back to life. She goes to “the club” two days a week and can’t wait to get there. She’s participated in physical therapy, chair exercises, bereavement counseling. She’s tried art and games. She knows the names and stories of all the Mary’s she sits with at lunch and enjoys their company even if she rarely speaks to them. She’s stronger emotionally as well as physically. Now Mom has something to talk about when we speak on the phone each day. There’s spirit in her voice and sometimes even laughter.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday Michael and I (and our pup, Chelsea) visited the family in New York. When we were around town and passed a nearby restaurant, I asked Mom if that’s where she’d like to celebrate her 90th birthday next February. She said, “No.” I asked where else she’d like to celebrate. Without hesitation she asserted “In Huntington, and I want an ice cream cake.” Mom is looking forward and has found her place.
When you’re not sure the best path to take with your elderly loved one, choose the path with heart. Remember: