I mentioned in my last blog post that I was coming out to the US to help care for my mother.
I’ve never been a caregiver in my entire life. I don’t have kids, and I’ve avoided dependent relationships. The last month has been one long “teachable moment” for me.
What happens if your Mom falls and no one is there to notice?
Mom had been living independently since 2001 when my dad passed away, first in apartments in Florida, and then relocating to Northern Virginia to be near my sister. At one point, living in Austin, I pitched Mom on moving to Austin to be near me. Mom said, “Oh Bryan, you may move around the world at some point.” Nostradamus, you have competition.
In September, the woman who takes Mom to church called my sister to let her know Mom did not answer her door. My niece drove over to unlock the apartment to find Mom out cold on the bathroom floor, where she had been for hours and hours. An ambulance arrived to take Mom to the hospital, where she spent three days recovering from rhabdomyolysis, and then transferred to three weeks of isolation in a rehab facility (no visitors due to COVID-19) , where regained enough strength to move back into her apartment.
We were lucky. A fall at Mom’s age can be fatal, whether from immobilisation from a broken hip, or that the heart or kidneys give out after the toxins unleashed from muscles pressed on by the hard floor underneath overwhelm the organs and the body shuts down.
Tell, don’t ask
We knew we had to make some changes, but we were hesitant about how and what. My sister has always been amazing about caring for my mom, and thinking through what’s best. At Mom’s age, change is very difficult. After Mom’s last move, she was rattled and it seemed to affect her for months afterward. We regret that move — the pathway being well paved with good intentions but the net effect being Mom was worse off.
We had talked to Mom about moving to a new senior living complex in my sister’s county (let’s call it “Hawaii”) as her next step, two years ago. It had meals, more services, activities, all the things she had six years ago in a place called Chancellor’s Village.
We received some fantastic advice, that at this point, open ended choices for Mom would only confuse things or never end in a decision. Mom is a master at saying “I’ll have to think about that,” which means “No.” So we talked to Mom and outlined the plan to move her to Hawaii, and didn’t ask it as a question but presented it as a fate accompli. Mom consented. It was a huge relief,
Grinding through the logistics
I did Mom’s last move myself, with the help of family. Not this time! We hired Smooth Transitions, who specialise in Senior moves. They did an amazing job of replicating Mom’s old apartment in her new one, to minimise confusion for Mom and minimise frustration for me.
I had spent the 10 days before the move changing addresses, packing, de-cluttering, Goodwill-ing, and consolidating. In Mom’s apartment I collected a hundred new envelopes, tens of saved gift bags, a hundred unused greeting cards, and enough general office supplies to open her own Hallmark store. Despite Mom lamentations that she didn’t have many Christmas decorations, I filled two large plastic storage bins with them.
My goal was to achieve the opposite result of Mom’s last move — to be able to answer Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off” with a resounding “Yes!” The sunrise-to-sunset work slowly regressed me into a manic state, ending every day exhausted.
But Light a newer Wilderness My Wilderness has made
After Smooth Transitions (that name should really belong to a DJ who mixes easy listening) unpacked the last box, Mom’s place looked great. Remarkably similar to her old apartment, and so I’d hoped “It will minimise the feeling of change”.
The world outside my mom’s door, however, was entirely new: the hallways, the elevator, the door lock, the height of her mailbox, the people, the carpet. The change confused Mom and it was hard to witness. The first day after Mom’s move, I took her down to breakfast at the new senior living facility she was living in. We met the housekeeper for her floor, and Mom declared with a smile, “I’m only here for a couple of days, he’s here longer.” A day later Mom asked, “When do I go back to my other apartment?” and a week later told me, with sadness in her eyes, “I didn’t realise this was a permanent move.”
I had focused so much on the internal journey, and optimistically ignored the difficult of Mom’s internal one.
Mom’s memory ranges from good to bad. She does not resemble the people I’ve met with Alzheimer’s, which her own mother passed away from, but memory still presents a challenge
.Not having a strong short term memory turns out to be dangerous. You cannot remember if you took your medication — so you may take it three or four times, or not at all. You cannot remember if someone came by earlier that day. You can’t remember what day it is to know if you have an appointment, that you won’t remember anyway.
Mom is sweet, kind, and calm. She is still “The Saint” (a nickname bestowed upon Mom by my Great Uncle Lou) that she has always been. But she does need help each day, for the little things.
The Storm Inside
My own emotions were ever-shifting, tangled, and impossible to rationalise. I would find myself yelling at the Audibook on AI that reverberated through the Ford Ecosport I had rented. On a few nights I’d have a Spotify playlist as I navigated 20 miles of back roads to a basement Airbnb, and I’d start crying without explanation — at a Billy Joel song, of all things.
My therapist told me several months ago that I could not control what was happening to my mom. That I could be there to support my sister and help her out, but that life was going to progress without me. I had done my very best to try and make things perfect, but of course, life never is.
During my time caring for Mom, I’ve been listening to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I should have listened to the book 15 years ago when Dad died, because it could have helped me care for Mom in a better, or at least more understanding way.
Gawande reminds us of three fundamental questions of wellbeing:
- Do you understand your current situation?
- What do you hope for? What do you want to happen?
- What are you afraid of?
In caring for Mom, I realised I could not even answer these questions for myself, and I had never asked her.
You do what you can, because the alternative is worse
I’ve read and watched so many trite endings lately that I won’t try and wrap this up with a bow here. The Goldfinch rightly proclaims:
No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe.
Yet just pages later…
For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time, so too has love.
Caring for someone means never being satisfied — never being able to fully remove their suffering, because life travels along side us, constantly supplying fresh packages of unhappiness and unearthing new, cruel catastrophes. But not caring is to suffer even more.
As you can see from the pictures, Mom is still doing great for 88 in so many ways. I don’t know when I’ll get to see Mom again. It’s hard when you live on the other side of the planet. But I am very grateful that in the middle of a global pandemic, I found a way to see Mom and do it safely.