February 28, 2011

Playing Catch with Mom

When you visit the Grand Canyon, you learn that several temperate zones are represented. There can be a sloppy winter storm slowing down the world at the rim; while thousands of feet below the warm winds blow around a pleasant desert climate. The Grand Canyon is so huge that it represents a microcosm of our changing globe.

My mother has multi infarct dementia. Once a month or so I make the 200-mile trek north to the Old Folks Home where she lives with my father who is her 24.7 caregiver. I am a long distance caregiver, while I call my parents every day I'm not there for the gruesome regularity of her care, management of medicine, meals, and adult diapers every day.

Watching my parents deteriorate over time is quite sad, I am mindful, however, of the gift of having them both past four score and seven. While things are not always easy, the time is a gift. I am reminded of my cousin's wife who lost her 61-year-old mother to a stroke ten years ago. When I complained about dealing with my mother's dementia and my father's care giving struggles, my cousin gently chastised me and reminded me to be thankful that they are both still here. She is correct, though it isn't always easy to think on those terms when there's a crisis.

My mother's personality now -- years after her initial diagnosis -- is like the Grand Canyon, deep, mysterious, sunny, and gloomy. Like the magnificent canyon, it is sometimes difficult to take my mother in totality. Sometimes there are storms at the surface; other times it seems as if nothing is going on; What she will say or do is becoming completely unpredictable. She is in great physical health -- while my father is wearing the physical stress of all that he does for her.

She is always happy to see me when I arrive, though she calls me "Spooky." This is a strange little habit that's developed over the past few years. I think because she can't remember names, she calls everyone "Spooky." What's odd about this is that I never heard her call anyone by the name of Spooky before her dementia, nor am I aware that she knows anyone by that name. Where did it come from?

Friday night at dinner, Mom was trying to cut a sliced dill pickle with her knife and fork. Somehow she has lost the ability to always know what or how to do something. Dad cuts up her food at every meal. Of course he didn't cut up the pickle, so she did. I noticed that she is starting to struggle with using a straw, and that she tipped her milk glass up so high that soon Dad will be helping her drink.

She is quite childlike and trusting. Saturday night my dad went to college reunion with my brother. My job was to give Mom her evening pills, and put her to bed. I've done it before, but each time she needs more help as she regresses. She stood by the bed waiting for me. I took off her clothes, hung them up, and put her pajamas on. We went into the bathroom and she took out her bridge and handed it to me. I wasn't thinking about that, and it was unexpected. I had to laugh, because I was standing with her teeth in my bare hands. Not something I thought I would ever do.

She takes a memory class at Purdue University, while my father is in a care giving class. The instructor suggested my dad get a child's ball and play catch with her. Play catch? Are you kidding me? That seemed ridiculous until I thought about it, and then it made sense. I went to Walgreens on Saturday and bought a soft plastic neon orange glow-in-the-dark ball that looks like the hair on Cousin It from The Addams Family.

Mom has to do several things, watch the ball, throw up her arms, bring them together to catch it. At first, she couldn't do them, she couldn't find the hand-eye coordination. She would put up her arms too late. After a few minutes she got it, and it was fun to play with her. She will not get better, but activities like this slow the inevitable deterioration.

I left today after church and brunch. Now when I leave, I wonder if it will be the last time I see them in this life. That can be said for all of us. I keep working on loving the small moments, like holding her teeth in my hands and appreciating how much she trusts me.

This was a cover piece and Editor's Pick on Open Salon today.