Progressive Loss

Today’s post doesn’t exactly fit any of my regular categories, but it does involve remembering someone very dear to me. Please indulge me.

She used to be my mother. These last few years, the roles have been reversed. What a trick nature plays on us if we and our parents live long enough.

I remember seeing the proud and wonderful man who sired me go from being the strong, wise and decisive person who had sat on boards of directors and helped set the course of Alcon, The Texas Boys Choir, and Trinity Valley School—all while pursuing a successful medical practice—devolve into a shriveled caricature of himself. This man I knew as my father finally lying inert on a hospital bed with a machine breathing for him. But, unlike my mother’s case, his deterioration covered a period of only six months from start to finish.

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Mother at age 91

When Mother moved into a retirement home—The Waterford of Fort Worth—in the summer of 2000, she was a vibrant and active 84 year-old. She drove her own car, kept track of her own financial affairs, walked several miles every day for exercise and on occasion carried great-grandsons up and down stairs. She looked, acted and thought much like she did in her sixties—and even earlier.

As I grew up, Mother was the parent I was always close to. Dad was great with civic and church activities and such, but she was the glue holding the family together.

If I scraped my knee, she was the one who would hold me in her lap and comfort me. Dad would provide medical treatment if I needed it, but she would give me the warm fuzzies kids need.

If I got into trouble, when Dad got through yelling at me, she would sit and talk to me. Her talks sometimes made me feel worse than his punishment about whatever stupid things I’d done, since she had the ability to make me see myself in the harsh light of reality, judging myself and bringing on my own guilt, but she always made me feel loved.

If I ever needed help or advice as an adult, Mother was there—even though she lived hundreds of miles away and Dad was nearby. He cared, and I never doubted his love, but he couldn’t show it like she did.

Before Sharon and I married in 1993, Mother and I lived in adjacent apartments with a doorway cut for passage in between. She helped me raise my drug-addicted little sister’s son, who was in my custody. I treasure the memories of the two years we spent living that way. We redeveloped a closeness geography had stolen from us through the years.

Mother continued to live independently for well over a decade after I married and moved away from our adjacent apartments. She stayed in her own apartment for several years, then moved to a retirement home in west Fort Worth and then finally, to be closer to Sharon and me, to the Waterford.

Somewhere shy of her 87th birthday, Mother gave up driving. She’d always been so fiercely independent we worried about how she’d react when we finally had to take her keys away, but she came to me first and said she wanted to give her car away.

About that same time she hurt her hip joint hauling my nephew’s toddlers up and down a staircase while babysitting with them. That event marked the beginning of a progressive decline in her.

Still healthy as a horse at age 95—she takes fewer prescriptions than I do—she has completely lost the ability to walk. First she began to slow down those wonderful daily exercise walks. Then she started using a walker whenever she got out of her chair. Over a period of five years or so, her inactivity led her to limp slowly along, leaning heavily on her walker to go anywhere.

We had to hire a service to help her bathe and dress and take her pills. I had to take over her checkbook and pay her bills. So became so dependent that during her final months at the Waterford she loved in fear anytime she was alone.

A few months after she turned 92, my sister and I—with input from my wife— made the decision to move her to an assisted living home where she would have more care. We found a small group home housing five to seven women and moved her in. She now has a caregiver on site 24/7 to see after her needs.

Not surprisingly, once she moved into Rose Terrace she soon lost the remnants of her ability to walk. For the last couple of years she’s had to be helped into a wheel chair to move from her bed to her living room chair and to the bathroom or the dining table.

Her physical deterioration has not been quite so disturbing as her mental decline. At this point, she knows me and my wife when we come to visit her. If I mention my sister’s name, it will register with her, but she’s not really sure who anyone is except Sharon and me.

On the other hand, if I visit alone, she’ll ask me a dozen times or so where Sharon is or what she’s doing. She frequently thinks she hasn’t been fed anything that day, and occasionally she has delusions about needing to go get her car or that her mother is coming to get her.

At times I hear her being short to the point of rudeness to the caregivers. I always tell them I wish they’d known her earlier, because that behavior is NOT my mother. They assure me they know it’s not, and they all seem to love her.

The latest development with Mother is that she was placed on hospice a couple of weeks ago. This gets her more nursing attention than before, and she has her own private certified nursing assistant who comes by for an hour or two each weekday to get her bathed, dressed and groomed, relieving the Rose Terrace caregiver from having to do that and giving Mother more personalized attention.

The rule for hospice used to be that the patient had a prognosis of death within six months. Apparently that’s no longer the case—or maybe I had a wrong impression to start with. Mother’s qualification for hospice is her mental decline. No one has said her death is imminent. In fact, given her physical condition and the genes she inherited from her mother, she could live ten more years.

To me, that’s a mixed blessing. I dread giving her up, but I also hate to see this once vibrant, loving woman continue existing as such a shadow of her true self.

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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9 Responses to Progressive Loss

  1. Piper Bayard says:

    Hi David. I have been a hospice volunteer, and I know this is a big move for you and for your family.

    I worked with several Altzheimer’s patients and patients with other types of mental decline. It was a bit scary walking in to meet the first one, but I learned something I did not expect. The person is still there, but they are who they are without their memories. One of my ladies loved purple. She always wore it and always had her nails done. I took the same book of Ireland to share with her each time, and each time it was new. But each time she was still the person who loved Ireland and made up funny stories about the pictures. She loved animals, and every time she had the same wonderful conversation with my dog. To me, not having had a past with them, I could see them as the whole people they still are. They are just tired and spending a lot of time in their dreams. They are not gone. They are moving down a long road and leaving us behind. I genuinely believe we will catch up to them again if we want to.

    I would not presume to know your mother, and I don’t know if anything I’ve said will be true for her. But it might be. Many prayers for you and your family.

    All the best,
    Piper Bayard

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  2. Debora Dale says:

    David, this was such a poignant post. I’m so sorry for all the confusion and pain of this time with your mom. I recognize every word of it and sympathize. My grandmother was just shy of her 96th birthday when she passed, and that was just over a year ago. It feels like it happened within the past few minutes.

    She was the one we went to if we needed to remember something. Somehow, she kept everything straight in her head – our schedules, recipes, where we put things we could no longer find. Memories. She was the storyteller of the family and, though I listened to all of her stories and enjoyed them, I didn’t listen to them closely enough to repeat them or to use them to get to “know” her in a deeper way.

    She needed so much toward the end, and she was so proud. The vision of that still cuts deeply. But she was a great-grandmother. Saw three generations grow up around her. And felt our love. As much as it guts us to say goodbye when that time comes, we have to remember the moments like you’ve described here. What a loving tribute to a woman I know is a wonderful force of love in your life. Be strong and know that even while confusion clouds her mind at times, it will never cloud it too much for her to feel your love.

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  3. Elora Smith says:

    A beautiful tribute by a gifted writer. Thank you for sharing, Elora.

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  4. The long, long journey continues. You are a faithful and loving son, and you were such to your father as well. Achieving old age can be a mixed blessing. So often as one ages, one reverts to the dependency of a baby or young child. And for the body to outlive the mind, can be tragically sad . There must be profound comfort for you in knowing that you have honored and are continuing to honor your parents, and that God loves and smiles upon a son like you. With love and admiration, Sharon

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  5. Barb Estinson says:

    What can I say …. other than I’m wiping tears from my eyes. I dread spending the long hours with her when I come soon … and yet, I dread giving her up too. I am so glad the Rose Terrace staff knows that her rude comments aren’t really her … and that they love her. I am also glad that she knows me when I’m there or when I call, even though she may not quite remember when you just mention me to her. Beautifully and poignantly written, David.

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