The Biggest Loser
I read an article online not long ago that I can’t get out of my mind. It was written by a woman who’s taken her very elderly mother into her home, to live with her and her family. I don’t know what the younger woman does for a living, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s a professional writer.
The commenters to her piece almost universally praised her for her beautiful words (they were certainly evocative, in that memoirish, creative non-fiction way so many readers and writers admire, including me). Many also encouraged the author’s nobility in caring so deeply and well for her mother that she would spare her mother the indignity of being institutionalized (for significant dementia) and instead provide care and oversight in a family setting.
So why did I cringe when I read the story, and why am I wincing still?
Because it was so clear reading the author’s account that the old lady’s most basic needs were not being met, and that the daughter resented the mother’s intrusion into what would have otherwise been a rather streamlined (and yes, dare I say it, fun!) life.
The author mentioned her mother wearing the same outfit—-day and night—-for six days, and refusing (or was it merely forgetting?) to bathe. She wrote that her mother got frustrated with their conversation early one morning, grabbed the car keys, and drove down the driveway. Do responsible caregivers really allow their elders to drive cars, no matter how physically capable they might be to do so, when their cognitive abilities have declined so markedly that they can’t remember what happened thirty seconds ago?
The writer said her mother stopped at the edge of the driveway and drove no farther, because she knew she wouldn’t know how to get back home. This is a poor understanding of advanced dementia, in my experience. How can the daughter predict with certainty which things her mother will “know” and “not know” in a specific situation? Or from one day—-or one moment—-to the next? Dementia is progressive, not static. Its victims are unpredictable, even if immobile—-and this writer’s mother is anything but immobile.
My own mother-in-law took automotive chances regularly for months, if not years, before we her children were aware of her driving difficulties. She was only determined to make short runs to the grocery store, just a few blocks from her house, but finally admitted that every time she tried it she had to stop and ask directions back to her own address. The gas station attendant knew her well. She’d pull in, display her driver’s license to him, and he’d tell her exactly which corners to turn at if she ever hoped to see her home again.
“Don’t tell the others….” she begged my sister-in-law, who immediately, of course, told the others. And all of us put our heads together and figured out the first in a series of next steps, which was obviously to remove the car keys from her possession. For her sake, though, we had to do it in a way that appealed to her love for all “the puppies,” who might be in danger if she were to be in an accident. But appeal we did, and act we did.
Besides the fact that her mom is not getting bathed or wearing clean clothing and is a clear flight risk, the author also referred to her mom’s endless energy and desire to be moving from one activity straight into the next. For the daughter, who just wanted to sip some coffee in peace (I get that, I really do!), her mom’s enthusiasm was frustrating and she didn’t hesitate to let her mom know how she felt.
Yeah, that’s honest and gripping storytelling. So raw, it might even be award-winning, I don’t know. But I keep thinking about the old lady’s social needs, going almost completely unmet, and how Memory Care units are designed for gals just like her.
In the right setting, the demented woman would not be constantly barraged with questions she couldn’t answer. Or questions worded in such a way that she felt like she was being “tested” and always failing. In the right setting, she would have family relationships plus some peers with whom to chatter, do crafts, share meals, and go on outings.
I am not at all saying that the adult child’s home is never the right setting for the demented parent. In many cases, it’s the perfect setting. But I wish every child who’s faced with a parent’s decline would consider the elder’s best interests to be foremost in the decision making process. For those whose parent has no problem getting in and out of a car, some days spent in a terrific elder daycare setting might be a wonderful social solution, as well as a respite for both parent and child.
If the adult child consistently loses patience with a parent who is physically amazing but mentally a no-show, I hate to think how quickly nobility would fly out the window if the old lady, I don’t know, broke her hip or something.
With everything our elderly stand to lose as their days draw to an ultimate close, I see no earthly reason why anyone’s mom should end up The Biggest Loser of all.
Posted by Katy on 01/12/11 at 11:26 AMFallible Comments...
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