Lessons I am learning as a caregiver to a parent with Dementia.
Our routine has paid off for this precious woman whose mind is working against her. She recognizes me, if not as her daughter-in-law, at least as a familiar face. I know this because her flat-affect gaze into the distance, melts into a look of relief and joy when she sees me walk through the door. It is usually the same conversation.
Mom: “Oh, I was just thinking, ‘I wonder where she is,’ and here you are! And I just want to…(at this point she makes motions with her arms like she is gathering me up and holding me close) keep you. Don’t ever leave me.”
Me: “How are you, Mom?” I ask, as I lean in to kiss her cheek.
Mom: “I’m okay, I guess.”
Me: “Did you have any good coffee this morning?”
Mom: “No, it was bad.”
Me: “You want me to see if I can find you a good cup of coffee?”
Mom: “Yes, that would be wonderful.”
And so I head down the accommodating yet claustrophobic halls of this holding tank for weary-bodied souls. I confess I used to feel strange as I made my way through the gauntlet of residents to get to the coffee maker in the dining hall.
It was like some geriatric version of the scene in “Toy Story” where Woody finds himself in the bedroom of the toy-mangling neighbor, Sid. The once pristine toys, come crawling out from under Sid’s bed—broken and mashed back together in unnatural, freakish ways. At first Woody gasps and recoils, but as the toys begin to communicate with him, he realizes that even though their outward appearance is different, their original design is still in there somewhere.
And so I too recoiled, at first, as I moved past walkers and wheelchairs, vacant stares and wild waves of hello...past sleeping, drooling people in mid-trip to God only knows where, somewhere, ANYWHERE other than their lonely rooms...and past loud cries of, “HELP ME!” from someone clearly not in distress, even as I got eager hugs from a nearly sixty year-old woman with Down’s Syndrome.
It is odd that we see brokenness so clearly among the elderly and somehow miss it in our own lives. We, the pre-nursing home people, cobble together some pretty remarkable, ridiculous constructs to rebuild ourselves after the “Sids” of the world have damaged our original design. We overeat…or we starve ourselves. We obsessively exercise to attain the body we think the world views as beautiful. What? No body issues? How about success at any cost? Even if it means sacrificing your family? Cha-ching! Or your friends? Cha-ching! Or your integrity? Cha-ching! How easy it is to become addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, approval, or love of self.
Perhaps we should consider how investing now in such commodities will serve us in our later years when we have no ability to pretend. When old age and dementia come calling, it won’t matter if you were a janitor or the C.E.O. of a Fortune 500 company. In the words of John 21:18, “When you were young, you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.”
I have no idea what all of these nursing home residents did in their “real” lives, but I can tell you this: aging is the great equalizer. Some of us might hold out a bit longer than others, but if we live long enough, our bodies and minds will decay.
Almost six months after my first adventure to the dining hall, my walk to the coffee pot is no longer an exercise in dodging uncomfortable encounters. I now know many of the residents by name. I coo over the baby dolls riding on the tray of Mrs. Nelson’s* wheelchair—cuddled as though flesh and blood. Carla runs to hug me exclaiming, “I know you!” Recently, I was summoned into Mrs. Velma’s room with the request to hand her her teeth. These are becoming “my people.” I notice when Melinda is staying in bed all day…or Gladys seems especially fretful and sad. I am saddened when I see Marilyn has taken a fall and is sporting new black eye and yet another link in the chain of aging is added to her life—a seatbelt on her wheelchair.
I re-enter Mom’s room with her coffee—cream only. She raises the cup to her mouth—gently using both hands like she is holding a baby bird—and takes the first taste. A look of utter satisfaction comes over face. With each sip, she licks the outside of the cup to rescue the drip of coffee that has escaped. It is like a religious experience…my mother-in-law and coffee. She sits back in her chair…contented, relaxed. She looks deeply into my eyes, smiles, and says, “I’m glad we are friends.”
Once again I am reminded to be present in the little, holy moments of each day. Cherish the simple pleasures like a good cup of coffee with a dear friend. Ultimately, it’s the only currency worth having.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals