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  1. #1

    Mothering our mother

    Mothering our mother
    Jan. 15, 2005

    At age 92, Mom desperately wants to stay in her own home and to feel in charge of her life.

    She finds it hard to admit she needs help and harder still to accept or ask for it, writes Anne Bochen.

    As we grow old, many of us eventually have to balance the wishes, needs and safety of an aging loved one with our own declining abilities.

    My sisters and I are all retired, our children on their own, so we're luckier than most. But it still isn't easy.

    I've just spent a week with my 92-year-old mother. She has some dementia from small strokes, some short-term memory loss, but nothing like full-blown Alzheimer's. She'd had a fall a month before my visit. Amazingly, she broke no bones, but she was still sore.

    My sister Jill rearranged her home so Mom could have two private rooms and her own bathroom. Mom stayed there for a while after the accident but she's back in her own bungalow with her spoiled little dachshund Suzy. She doesn't want to live with any of her children.

    I can identify with that sentiment. Much as I love them — and because I love them — I wouldn't want to live with my children, either. I'm sure they hope I won't change my mind.

    Mom wants to be in her own home, to feel in charge of her life. My sisters tell me she's disoriented in the mornings, but that's in their homes. In her own, where each step and routine is firmly embedded, she seems fine.

    Widowed as a young woman, in 1942, with no marketable skills or employment history and pregnant with her fourth child, Mom became self-sufficient out of necessity. She was widowed again 21 years ago and has lived with only a dog for constant company since. When you're used to relying on yourself for everything, it's hard to admit you need help, harder still, to accept it or ask for it.

    Loss of independence is a bitter pill.

    Mom has ceded her power of attorney to my sister Diane who handles her bills. Jill looks after medical appointments and arranges meds in daily, compartmentalized doses.

    Both live a short drive away and see her frequently. Sandra, who is three hours by plane, and I, a five-hour drive away, offer occasional respite to them.

    Diane and Jill certainly bear the brunt of the work and responsibility, and the frustration Mom feels is often directed as anger at them. It's one of life's ironies, and terribly unfair, that those of us who help least are treated best.

    Our visits are special occasions. Other relatives come by and life is more entertaining for her, though more tiring. She enjoys being on the periphery of a conversation, but not having to carry the full weight of one. Memories flood back and she delights in reciting them.

    Typical of women her age, she complains that she wakes frequently and sleeps little. She seems to sleep well enough if she stays up past 7 and doesn't catnap too much during the day — a point she dismisses angrily.

    A Depression child, Mom is obsessed with money, hoarding it. Many things she forgets, but she always knows how much money she has. After therapy one day, she rummaged in her purse and became very agitated: two twenties were missing.

    "Someone must have sneaked into the house and stolen them." She is careful not to accuse me.

    "Perhaps the same person who takes single earrings and lone socks," I say.

    She finds the cash on her dresser with her chequebook.

    Diane had been writing cheques with her, a wrenching experience, but she still wants to be involved in the process.

    Her vacuum cleaner picks up nothing. The bag is new, the belt, in place. She insists it worked fine till I touched it. I replace it with a lightweight cordless self-charging model, singing its praises as I do a demo. I show her all the dust before I empty the bag. She's duly impressed.

    Her one extravagance is heat. She's always cold and her furnace chugs constantly, even on hot days, but woe unto anyone who leaves a light on and wastes electricity.

    Her anti-therapy campaign begins at breakfast with a sigh. "I don't have any oomph. I feel like a dishrag."

    "Finish your breakfast and you'll feel like doing more." My sisters had warned me that when they cancelled a therapy session, her energy level improved dramatically.

    "If you want to stay in your own home you have to strengthen your leg and improve your balance." I sound like her mother. I try humour, with a touch of Pollyanna.

    "I've waited all my life for the chance to order you around and I'm really enjoying it." She smiles. "Tomorrow, tell me you feel great even if it's a lie."

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Mom offers her usual disclaimer to some visiting relatives: "I have a secret. My mind doesn't work any more." But she enjoys herself, eats well and has a good visit.
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I promise to take her out to lunch after therapy. Did she ever bribe me thus?

    At therapy, she rides a stationary bike, marches, walks backward and does assorted platform exercises for an hour. She earns a gold star from the therapist.

    "Not bad for 92." She's pleased with herself.

    To everyone who will listen she says, "I just want to stay in my own home." The unspoken message: she is proud that she can still look after herself.

    She tells the therapist that I drove her today but that she usually drives herself. She sold her low-mileage car 14 years ago. She tells me she picked apples last week and made applesauce. Last week is five years ago.

    She's driven herself lots of places and picked many an apple, just not recently. Time has merely changed its shape, which allows her to feel more in control of her own life.

    She makes a grocery list. It would be simpler to just do her shopping, but she wants to do it. I'm glad she has an interest in food.

    Grocery shopping may be the last task she'll surrender. A grocery cart is as stable as a walker and much less embarrassing.

    She hates her running shoes. She says they're ugly and make her feet look big, but admits they're comfortable. I'm happy to see a touch of vanity.

    I try to let her do things for herself, and not hover. When I return from a brief outing, I find her in the garage without her walker. Someone has rearranged her garage. (That was four years ago when my brother kidnapped her ladder so she could no longer teeter on it to wash windows.)

    One evening, a nephew and his wife and children come for dinner. After her usual disclaimer, "I have a secret. My mind doesn't work any more," Mom enjoys herself, eats well and has a good visit. After they go, she's frustrated that she can't remember her great-grandchildren's names. We write them down.

    She's tired but wringing her hands. I'm simmering chicken bones for soup. I finally realize she wants the stove off. I set the timer and agree to read in the kitchen until it buzzes. I'm pleased she is so aware of her stove and recall that she also unplugs her coffee maker after I've merely turned it off.

    She's also good about locking doors. When I announce I've locked the door after bringing in the dog or the mail, she waits a decent interval before checking that it is truly locked. Another sign that she is safety-conscious.

    After a week, when I'm packing my car, she thanks me for coming. She's glad to see me go, but sorry to see me leave.

    I meet my sisters for lunch — Mom's hearing is so good that we have to talk about her in another venue. We all agree she wouldn't last a week in a chronic-care facility, and without her dog, she'd lose her will to live. Though we've extracted her promise that she won't go to the basement, we know she'll do whatever she pleases when we're not there to harass her.

    We work out a schedule that provides more respite for Jill and Diane. We arrange for a cleaning woman every two weeks. When we clean, unobtrusive as we think we are, she takes it as criticism of her housekeeping. Hired help is okay, so long as we subsidize it and she doesn't know the true cost.

    Mom wears a one-touch monitor to summon help. We have several phones in the house, one at the bottom of the basement stairs, programmed to call any of us or 911 with a single push. We all know she could fall down the basement stairs and kill or incapacitate herself.

    But so could any of us. Life has risks. And we want her to be where she wants to be as long as possible.

    We think she's too old and too aware to adjust to a different home situation, but we know this decision may not be permanent. For now, she eats, she takes her meds, she's not a danger to herself or others, she's conscious of home safety and she has routines to give shape to her daily life.

    When I phone, Mom may tell me that no one's been to see her for days, but, in fact, she's merely forgotten they've been there. When I phoned her the day after returning home, she asked when I was coming to see her, indicating she'd not seen me in a long time. She'd already forgotten I'd been there, but when I reminded her, she "remembered" or faked it, another coping strategy.

    We all pray that Mom can remain in her own home until she dies; we hope that death will be in her sleep, under her pile of blankets and afghans, with Suzy snuggled beside her.

    Meanwhile, our roles have reversed. Now is the time for us, her aging children, to be her caregivers, help-arrangers and support system. But we must remember not to smother her. She gave us the room to grow into the self-confidence of adulthood.

    How unfair it would be if we were to undermine her sense of self in her last days.

  2. #2

    Mothering our mother

    Heh. Thanks, HeartArt, for posting that. I live with my 83 year old grandmother and my 63 year old mother. My grandmother isn't demented, but she's semi-incapacitated from a badly broken hip that fell prey to avascular necrosis a few years ago. She wasn't an operative candidate at the time because of severe congestive heart failure and having had 4 heart attacks and a stroke. Her cardiac condition improved enough for her to have the surgery early last year, but she's had several setbacks since then, including another heart attack, so she's not dependably mobile.

    My mother had a brain tumor removed a coulple of years ago. She's recovered, to a great degree, but still suffers from osteoporosis, which causes her a great deal of pain in her back and shoulders, and has a marked tremor that makes many things she enjoys pretty difficult for her. She still manages to work as a nursing supervisor, so that gives her an outlet three days a week.

    I saw so much of (especially) my grandmother in the article you posted. It made me smile a bit. Perhaps, it is a bittersweet smile, but both my loved ones are still alive and kicking, and enjoying life for the most part. They can't do what they could when they were younger, and I know that's frustrating, but they're chugging along and they're still here to love and be loved.

  3. #3

    Mothering our mother

    ThatLady,

    My mother uses the grocery cart for a walker. She cannot walk far as she gets too tired so the cart allows her to spend time shopping, which she enjoys.

    Bless your heart for being there for your grandmother and your mom.

    Cheers
    HeartArt

  4. #4

    Mothering our mother

    Heh. My grandmother uses the walls of the house. Her orthopaedist calls it "cruising", since she "docks" at every "port" on her way to where she's going. It's partly because of weakness, but it's also because of fear. Once a person has broken a hip (or otherwise had a painful injury that left them debilitated), they tend to fear a repeat performance. She also HATES the clunky shoes with the brace that runs up to just below her knee on her right leg (she had some nerve disfunction in that leg). She wants to wear "heels". I just roll my eyes and grin.

    I enjoy being with them and am thrilled that I am able to offer them a place with me. They gave so much to me, it's good to have the chance to give some back. :o)

  5. #5

    Mothering our mother

    I can picture your grandma talking about her "shoes". :~}

    I feel the same way, ThatLady, about being able to give back. It is not until you reach this stage and have your own children that you realize the sacrifice that your parents made for you throughout their lives. I am able to provide them company and listen to their difficulties and try to ease their burden of age if I can.

    At the same time, I am still comforted by them through their love for me.

    I feel blessed to have had my parents.

  6. Mothering our mother

    I'm new here. I visited this site because I was looking for an online version of that newspaper article (Mothering our mother), to pass along to some friends in similar situations. But now I think I would like to post here.

    First, I want to say thank you to HeartArt for posting it -- that article really touched me. I saw so much of my Mom in it. It made me happy and sad to read it. Happy, because it brought back some "fond" memories of her. Sad because it reminded me of what the last few years have been like and because I now have a big hole where all that chaos used to be. She died in April.

    To "ThatLady" -- You are so lucky that your grandmother was able to have her hip repaired. My mother broke her hip just about a year ago. She was not a good candidate for hip replacement (due to advanced lung disease), so they put in three metal pins. She was the star of rehab, and I really thought she was going to come all the way back from it. But by November, she was in terrible pain. A CAT scan showed not only had one of the pins become dislodged, but she had developed aseptic necrosis.

    The orthopedist said hip replacement was her only chance at quality of life... but unfortunately, it would be very risky. She just wanted to come home... much like Anne Bochen's mother. I live in Canada and she lived (I just can't get used to the past tense) in the US. I came down to get her set up in her home. I hired a live-in health care aide and her doctor admitted her to hospice. There was no more talk of rehab. She was in so much pain... I can't begin to describe it here.

    Without going through all the gory details, I will say that as late as January, she was walking (albeit with much difficulty). By February, she was bedbound and on morphine. She hung on for three months, but she was barely there most of the time. I was with her for about half that time, including the two weeks right before she died.

    I do feel that I got the brunt of Mom's frustration. My "visits" with her were not special occasions. It makes me very sad to remember those last days. She rarely smiled at me the way she beamed when my brother poked his head through the door. I know (intellectually) that it was not reflective of her true feelings, but I just wish we could have shared more in those last days.

    Now, I'm back home, but things just don't feel normal anymore.

  7. Mothering our mother

    I'm new here. I visited this site because I was looking for an online version of that newspaper article (Mothering our mother), to pass along to some friends in similar situations. But now I think I would like to post here.

    First, I want to say thank you to HeartArt for posting it -- that article really touched me. I saw so much of my Mom in it. It made me happy and sad to read it. Happy, because it brought back some "fond" memories of her. Sad because it reminded me of what the last few years have been like and because I now have a big hole where all that chaos used to be. She died in April.

    To "ThatLady" -- You are so lucky that your grandmother was able to have her hip repaired. My mother broke her hip just about a year ago. She was not a good candidate for hip replacement (due to advanced lung disease), so they put in three metal pins. She was the star of rehab, and I really thought she was going to come all the way back from it. But by November, she was in terrible pain. A CAT scan showed not only had one of the pins become dislodged, but she had developed aseptic necrosis.

    The orthopedist said hip replacement was her only chance at quality of life... but unfortunately, it would be very risky. She just wanted to come home... much like Anne Bochen's mother. I live in Canada and she lived (I just can't get used to the past tense) in the US. I came down to get her set up in her home. I hired a live-in health care aide and her doctor admitted her to hospice. There was no more talk of rehab. She was in so much pain... I can't begin to describe it here.

    Without going through all the gory details, I will say that as late as January, she was walking (albeit with much difficulty). By February, she was bedbound and on morphine. She hung on for three months, but she was barely there most of the time. I was with her for about half that time, including the two weeks right before she died.

    I do feel that I got the brunt of Mom's frustration. My "visits" with her were not special occasions. It makes me very sad to remember those last days. She rarely smiled at me the way she beamed when my brother poked his head through the door. I know (intellectually) that it was not reflective of her true feelings, but I just wish we could have shared more in those last days.

    Now, I'm back home, but things just don't feel normal anymore.

  8. #8

    Mothering our mother

    I understand your feelings, pami. My grandfather died about five years ago, and we all still feel his loss. My grandmother talks about him often, and worries that she wasn't "sympathetic" enough when he was alive. He suffered from dementia, and wasn't easy to live with even before that. She did the best she could, but she still feels guilty. It's sad, really. It's always hardest for the person closest to the suffering one, as HeartArt's article says. We're the one who takes the brunt of the difficult times.

    My mother's brother lives in California. He took himself out of the loop and satisfies himself with occasional phone calls...too often, asking for money. It angers me, but I have to keep telling myself it's not my decision, but my grandmother's. She adores him, and always has a ready excuse for his neediness. Mom and I just look at each other and maintain our silence on the subject.

    I guess, the best we can do is to realize how fortunate we are to have loved and been loved. It may not always be a blissful experience, but it's more than many have. I try to remember that when I'm feeling down.

    Bless you for being there for your mom at the end of her life, just as she was there for you at the beginning of yours. It's a very special gift.

  9. #9

    Mothering our mother

    I understand your feelings, pami. My grandfather died about five years ago, and we all still feel his loss. My grandmother talks about him often, and worries that she wasn't "sympathetic" enough when he was alive. He suffered from dementia, and wasn't easy to live with even before that. She did the best she could, but she still feels guilty. It's sad, really. It's always hardest for the person closest to the suffering one, as HeartArt's article says. We're the one who takes the brunt of the difficult times.

    My mother's brother lives in California. He took himself out of the loop and satisfies himself with occasional phone calls...too often, asking for money. It angers me, but I have to keep telling myself it's not my decision, but my grandmother's. She adores him, and always has a ready excuse for his neediness. Mom and I just look at each other and maintain our silence on the subject.

    I guess, the best we can do is to realize how fortunate we are to have loved and been loved. It may not always be a blissful experience, but it's more than many have. I try to remember that when I'm feeling down.

    Bless you for being there for your mom at the end of her life, just as she was there for you at the beginning of yours. It's a very special gift.

  10. Mothering our mother

    Thanks ThatLady, for your kind words. I really don't know what I feel these days. When I first got home, I was doing pretty well. I guess I was numb and now, the novacaine has worn off. Because I find myself crying at the oddest times.

    I'm glad I was with her, but there are some memories from that time that I'd prefer not to have. This was a woman who personified activity. She was an athlete all her life. It breaks my heart to remember her looking up at me from her bed, saying, "Is this how I will spend the rest of my life?". I hated that I was the one who had to tell her, "yes". And I hated that I had to explain why there would be no physical therapy this time, as there had been all the other times.

    I really don't think she "got it" when she decided against the hip surgery. I was so afraid that she would realize it at a point when the choice was no longer available to her. And that is exactly what happened.

    I don't know if this is the proper forum for me. But that article triggered some feelings that seem to be pouring out now... like it or not. I wish that I could have taken advantage of the bereavement services Hospice offered. But I had to get back home. I'd already been away for two months. Anyway, thanks again for your post.

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