Tips for Caring for Parent with Dementia

womanIf you give Mom a cookie … She’ll want another one to go with it. Some days, that’s her idea of a balanced diet: one cookie in each hand.

Not always, though. Most days she’s pretty careful to eat and drink like someone with a history of diabetes. But some days, dementia wins and the child in her comes out to play.

I’ve decided that caregiving for someone with dementia is a lot like parenting a toddler. Some differences, of course … I would always want to treat her like the adult she is, and give her as much say in the details of her life as possible (clothing and drink options, etc.) But this is a marathon, not a sprint: To some degree, it’s important to manage the chaos. Especially since I have two chaos-generating teenagers as well as a husband to think of. And the dogs. Oh, Lord, the dogs.

Some of the same lessons I learned (a bit too late, in some cases) while raising Chris and Sarah have come in handy for taking care of mom:

  • Enjoy the moment. When they were little, I would attempt to work when they were on the floor playing. In retrospect, life would have been much sweeter if I had joined the fun more often, instead of powering through. Now, with Mom, I move at a slower pace — but, thanks to the kids, I’ve learned to stop fuming and to reset my internal clock. I may not get as much done — but I’m enjoying it more.
  • Think twice, act once. Thinking through the steps of a task while changing, bathing, or transporting her saves wear and tear on the body from lifting her or getting myself on the floor (or up again). Gathering everything ahead of time – lotion, clothes, socks and shoes, wipes and bags, etc. – and putting them in arm’s reach can save a lot of wear and tear on both of us.
  • Go-Bag at the ready. When the kids were little, I’d never go anywhere without an emergency bag (diapers and wipes, sunscreen, change of clothes, snack and juice box, activities, emergency Diet Coke and clean shirt for me). Add a few tabs of Ammodium and an emergency set of morning meds, it comes in handy now, too.
  • Morning and evening routines make for a better day. When the kids were little, doing the same things in the same order in the morning and again at night was our best shot at a good night’s sleep. Now they are MOM’s best chance. Change into nighty, warm socks, tuck in with a kiss, soft music while I read to her, lights out. After about 10 minutes, gentle snores come over the monitor. All is well. The next morning, turn on a gentle light and a five-minute warning before getting her up helps her to be relatively alert and steady on her feet.
  • Soothing music and baby monitors. As a new parent, I discovered that the monitor was as much about my peace of mind as their safety – which holds true for the elderly, too. When she seems especially agitated, my piano music or a few Gospel favorites can soon get her humming along.
  • Encourage independence as much as possible. At bathtime, a sitting bench and detachable and/or adjustable showerhead allows her to do much of her own personal care and preserves her modesty. I’ve also learned to give ample time for her to attempt to dress and undress herself. Just as when they were little, it would be much simpler and faster for me to do it for her … but faster is not always better.
  • Anticipate changes. Ten years ago, Mom could whip up a double batch of cookies faster than you could say “oatmeal chip with walnuts.” Now I do the mixing and oven work, and she scoops the dough onto the trays. Once I made the mistake of leaving her with my teenage daughter to finish the last few pans … and Mom burned herself badly. I would never have left a toddler alone near the stove. This incident taught me the hard way that I can’t leave her, either.
  • Bribes can be your friend. As every experienced parent knows, the occasional bribe is a useful tool in the parental tool belt. The same is true for caregiving. Mom will do almost anything for sweet potato pie. I have four of them in the freezer, just in case I need to hack off a slice to make the pills go down.
  • Beware diaper butt syndrome. It’s hard to take advice from someone whose butt you once diapered. Even with dementia, parents sometimes need to hear the tough messages from others (doctors, pastor, hired caregiver, friends) in order to let it really sink in. When Mom refused to take her meds because of her auditory hallucinations, I made an appointment with her doctor, who wrote a letter I could post on the refrigerator that reads: “Sandy, as your doctor I’m telling you to listen to your daughter. She is in charge. Take all your meds every day. Drink lots of water. Keep eating to keep up your meds. If you do these things, you will stay as healthy as possible, as long as possible.” From that moment, she has not missed a pill.

What tips would you add to the list?



When God’s Will Hurts

Today I am sitting at a desk that used to be my home-away-from-home three years ago, when I worked for this company full time. I’m here to attend a Christmas party before going to pick up my mom from her daycare facility.

nativity-447767About an hour ago, I was standing outside in the cold, unable to get into the building because — as a contract employee — I had no way to access the building. No keypad code. No card. For the first time, I felt the full weight of what it means to be a contract employee. This was reinforced when someone finally let me in — through the delivery door. (I should point out that this was doubtless not the intention — it was simply that everyone was gathered for the meeting. Most days, I really love the arrangement. It was just unfortunate timing!)

Sitting here at the desk, I ask myself why this bothers me so much. Last week when I found out my application to become an employee again had been passed over in favor of someone else, my immediate reaction (and my reaction for several days after that) was relief. This meant I could keep working from home, and could have a flexible schedule. I was confident that this was the hand of God, arranging everything in the best interest of all his children.

It was just today, standing out in the cold and waiting for someone to see me, that I felt another, darker side: as a contract worker, I don’t really belong, not like I used to. And in that moment, I realized something else: that sometimes following the will of God — even when you know in your head it is the right way — can sting. When Simeon saw Mary in the Temple, holding the infant Jesus, his words to her were a dire warning: “a sword shall pierce your heart.” She had surrendered unconditionally to the will of God.

Still, she had been warned, the way will not always be lined with palm branches and dancing shepherds. One day, that way will involve a cross. One day, she will feel like an outsider — out in the cold, people staring, judging, pitying. She will be the mother of a criminal executed in the most horrific way possible. She will be an outcast by association.

And so, my friends, will you. Because following God’s will always entails a cross. Jesus promised it: “If anyone comes after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.”

That wood that once shaped a manger, is the same substance that shaped a cross. And the way that God calls us to follow from the moment of baptism, and again at confirmation … will entail the sufferings that are necessary for us to grow in perfect love.

Mary, Queen of Sorrows, pray for us.




Cookie Chronicles

blueberry zucchiniThis year, with Mom helping with the baking, I decided to dig out the old family receipe files and mix things up a bit from the tried-and-true gingerbread and candy cane routine.

In addition to the traditional banana bread (to use up the sour cream from the sugar cookie recipe I usually use), we are making:

Almond sugar cookies (my Aunt Lolly’s recipe), with crushed almonds and almond flavoring in place of vanilla. The scent was so heady, Chris wandered out of his room just to find out what was going on!

Next up, peanut butter cookies, using the “natural peanut butter” Craig asked for, then decided wasn’t crunchy enough. I added some crushed peanuts, just to be safe. Then roll ’em in more crushed peanuts and sugar. Because … well, you just can’t get enough peanuts in a peanut butter cookie!

Finally, my grandmother’s (Dixie’s) oatmeal chip cookies. I remember making these with her when I was a little girl, measuring out the oats and dumping them in the bowl. I figured we need at least one kind of cookie that will satisfy the sweet tooth of someone with a nut allergy, right?

Tomorrow is Sarah’s first guitar concert. She’s only been playing a couple of months, but the teacher already has her in a group of girls playing Taylor Swift’s “Last Christmas.” Looking forward to the fun!

Heidi is on “Women of Grace” this week!

Teresa-21Birthdays and wedding anniversaries are so often opportunities to celebrate, to recall the past year and anticipate (usually with joy) all the new year will bring.

Today marks a special one-year anniversary, the release of my book Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  On Monday  “Women of Grace” will be airing its program about the book. Try to tune in when you can to EWTN (mornings at 11:00 EST, evenings at 11:30 EST).

If you would like to order ten or more copies for a parish group, to bring in the Advent season, please contact me at Heidi.hess.saxton(at), and I can offer you a special discount: $10/copy, postage paid!

Today marks another anniversary for me as well: Exactly one year ago today, a friend wrote to remind me, I suddenly and unexpectedly lost my job at Franciscan Media, giving me a two-month hiatus as I thought about what I would do next. When Ave invited me back to do some acquisitions work for them, it was like going home again. Although, of course, it is true what they say: You can never really go home again. People and relationships are constantly changing, for better or worse. And we must change with it.

This time of year can be a tough time for those who are seeking work, or who find themselves otherwise in transition. As I continue to work for Ave, I find myself facing another transition: my mother is coming to stay with us. Her dementia prevents her from living at home with my dad, and I’m wondering what my life will be like a month from now, six months from now. My prayer is that she and my daughter will bond in a way that makes our home a happy place. My prayer is that the symptoms of the disease that has damaged my mother’s mind and her associations will abate, and her heart will find peace. My hope is that she will spend the last months of her life feeling the love of her family. My hope is that, day by day, God will grant us all the grace we need to do what needs to be done.

Today I’d like to offer this little prayer for those who are facing a similar personal Everest.

May the Lord keep you ever in his care.

May our Lady hold you in her mother’s heart.

And until we all meet together in the new Jerusalem,

May we journey all together in his peace.


Becoming Mom: Life, Full Circle


Mom and me on a Girl’s Day Out. October 2015

It’s official: The Saxtons are about to add another place at the dining room table, and we’re going to become a multi-generational household. Heaven help us.

On November 17 I’m going to be flying with my mom from her memory care facility near Atlanta, to bring her on an “extended visit” with us here in Indiana. We’ve found an adult daycare and a fill-in caregiver for while I’m at work. And I try not to think too much about what she’ll say about my housekeeping skills. I’m hoping she’ll be so happy not to be where she was, that even our chaotic household will be an improvement.

If you have ever made the choice to bring a parent to live with you, I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the things you did to make the transition easier? If your parent has dementia (like mine), what are some of the things you wish someone had told you ahead of time?




Why Foster Parent? Lots of Reasons… Here’s where it started for us!

seventh grade

See that geeky girl in the first row, second from left? Permed and bespeckled, wearing a too-short dress even though everyone else was wearing cool blue jeans?

You’re looking at the genesis of a foster mom.

Like most middle-school students, I led a fairly self-involved existence. It was years before I discovered that not everything is always as it seems. The pretty, popular girls — the ones who could wear mascara and had pool parties at their house that I was never invited to — had parents who were divorcing or drank too much. The unpopular kids … well, they had their own stories. It’s amazing how resilient kids can be.

Me, I was living out my own family drama. My sister’s cancer and the related financial devastation my parents faced had left its mark on my childhood. I was a good student primarily because books were my escape (we had no television, and secular music was forbidden). Money was so tight, there just wasn’t enough to buy the jeans the other girls were wearing. I didn’t even ask, because I knew the money wasn’t there. Instead I wore my best friend’s hand-me-down water print dress. It was too short, and my mother made me wear a longer skirt underneath. But to me, if was the epitome of haute couture.

There was a lot I didn’t tell my parents back then, not wanting to add to their load. (A neighbor lady who used to watch my sister and me while Chris was in the hospital planted this idea in my head, and it took root.) I spent a lot of time alone. One sweet boy (with the unfortunate last name of “Roach”) who talked to me and sometimes walked me home after school, disappeared after eighth grade, and I never knew what happened to him. I could only hope the rumors weren’t true.

How did all this add up to my becoming a foster parent? When Craig and I first started to talk about having a family, we knew we couldn’t conceive. Adoption was an option, but I kept thinking back to those months of being passed around as a kid, staying with one set of church friends or neighbors after another. I was always being reminded to be good, quiet, helpful. That, too, took its toll.  Looking back on my middle-school self, I can see now that I wasn’t ugly, or fat, or worthless, or unlovable. But back then I felt it to my bones.

I wanted to spare some other kid those same feelings. Each time I passed Catholic Charities in Detroit on my way to and from seminary, I thought about that twelve-year-old, until finally Craig and I pulled in and asked about becoming foster parents. We attended the classes … and next thing we knew, our children arrived on our doorstep.

To be perfectly honest, we were pretty naïve going into it. Like many foster parents, we discovered that sometimes love and compassion isn’t enough to heal the wounded heart of a child. Sometimes you just have to journey with them as patiently as you can — and remind them, over and over, that they are loved, and wanted, and safe. For me, it was the ultimate middle-school payback.

Have you ever thought about becoming a foster parent? I’d like to hear your story!