Dealing with Dementia: Don’t Forget Fun

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For Labor Day, we were invited to some friends’ house for a barbecue — they are new friends from church, a young couple and their adorable ten-month-old. If those cherubic cheeks didn’t seal the deal, the fact that she asked me to make my potato salad and favorite frozen dessert gave me warm fuzzies. This kind of casual hospitality is wonderful because it (a) lets me contribute and (b) is so low-pressure: just sit out on the covered deck, sip wine and feast on burgers and sides … and if someone misbehaves, no one cares. They even invited the dogs to come and romp in their spacious back yard.

The best part was watching mom’s eyes light up as I sang silly songs to the baby … the same silly songs, I’m sure, that she once sang to me. “You look just like a grandma,” she said to me. And the thing was, I kind of reveled in it. My own teenagers sat with their faces in their phones, until Chris got bored and started playing with his dog … our eleven-year-old Aussie shepherd who chased a ball, pulled something, shrieked, and fell down.

That was when life set in again. Mom urgently needed a rest room, Craig stood to leave because two hours was the most he could spare away from his desk right now (he’s been working nonstop for the last month), and Sarah launched into a never-ending monologue about her birth family, who she would be spending Christmas with this year.

Reluctantly I got up and started clearing the dishes. It was nice while it lasted.

We all got home and went to our respective quiet places … and the next thing I  knew, three hours had passed. I had NAPPED for THREE HOURS! Probably would have kept on napping, too, if my daughter’s tumbly hadn’t started rumbling. “What’s for dinner, mom?”  I was struck by the heaviness of the quiet. I could feel the stress closing in again, like a suffocating cloud.

Craig was still at his desk. Mom needed her meds and a bath, but she was still passed out on her bed, fully clothed, having been exhausted from our excursion. Chris was perched by the dog crate, plaintively wondering aloud if Maddy needed to go to the vet. (We spent three hours that night at the animal ER.) Sarah was alternately blasting her music and screaming at us to get dinner NOW.

I whipped up a sheet of Super Nachos, heated up some leftovers for mom’s dinner … and then I dug a Buster Bar out of the fridge (half a bar is my go-to indulgence), closed my eyes, and thought about the day. I could still see my mother’s happy smile and hear the infant’s delighted chortle as I blew a loud raspberry on her tummy. My tastebuds still danced from that glass of pino grigio, juicy burgers, and my friend’s delicious green bean almond salad. Tomorrow would come — the caregivers, the workday, the chauffeuring kids hither and yon. Yes, we were likely looking at thousands of dollars if the dog needs surgery.  But today … today we made a memory.

If you are a caregiver for an elderly loved one (or younger ones with special needs, or whatever your particular situation entails), it can be easy to get caught up on the frazzle dazzle. But try not to. Try to find one thing … anything, really, to enjoy. To remember and treasure as a memory. Those bright spots are golden when the rains come, as they inevitably do.

Moms are the heart of the home, the keeper of secrets and memories. If we find a reason for joy, the rest of the family tends to follow suit. And when we give in to the dark side, home becomes a dark place indeed. So … hold on to those wine-sipping, baby giggling memories. Find something to laugh about. It matters more than you know.

 

Are We F-I-N-I-S-H-E-D Yet?

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Last night I found myself in the middle of a chaotic exchange between my teenage daughter, my elderly mother, and myself. My husband was gone, and both of them were unhappy with me for reasons that made no sense to me. (I chalked my daughter’s tantrum up to teenage hormones, my mother’s up to dementia. Mine, simply to the resentment of being squeezed into an impossible situation.) When will it end? I kept asking myself. When will the nonsense end?

It was tempting to hold a ginormous pity party for myself. Or simply to put my foot firmly down, and insist that it was “my way or the highway.” But what would that have done? It would have led to a stubborn standoff, each of us retreating to our separate spaces feeling resentful, bullied, and misunderstood. Instead I took a deep breath.

I think we need to lighten things up a bit — how about a game of Scrabble?” I pulled out the board I’d inherited from my maternal grandmother, a Scrabble shark if ever there was one. Mom’s eyes lit up … dementia or no, she can always give me a run for my money. And Sarah likes nothing more than to see her mother beaten, fair and square.

I drew my seven tiles, then made my play: d-a-r-n-e-d. Six letters, not bad. Double points.

I heard an intake of breath, then with slightly shaking hands my mom built on my final “d”: F-I-N-I-S-H-E-D. Using all her tiles, she put her score light-years ahead of mine. She caught my eye, the triumphant gleam unmistakable. “You’re FINISHED!” she crowed.

Not quite, Mom. But someday. Someday.

Letter to My New Mom Self

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m getting ready to go out of town for a few days, and so I wanted to reprise something for Mother’s Day from a few years back. This year Christopher turns 18, and is reconnecting with some of his birth family, so it seems like the right time to get a little retrospective. (If that’s the right word.)

Oh, and if you caught my Mother’s Day article over at “The Perennial Gen” and have wandered over here … Welcome! (Don’t get scared off by the post under this one. I promise I can’t remember the last time I blogged about anything political. I have enough drama in my life without adding to it — don’t you?)

And so, without further ado … Pour yourself a cup of tea and meander with me to 2015.

Next weekend we celebrate a decade of “official” family life. Ten years since the adoptions were finalized and the kids were officially welcomed into the family . . . and baptized into God’s. We plan to go to Cedar Point with their godparents, to celebrate. This weekend, though, as Sarah and I sit in the living room — her painting designs on her fingernails and watching Girl Meets World, and me typing, my mind drifts back to those first few weeks together. Some parts are such a blur, but others come back with crystal clarity. And so, before those bits get fuzzy, too, I thought I’d write a little letter to my new-mom self.

Dear New-Mom Heidi:

I know it seems impossible right now, when every hour drags as you try to cope with enormous mounds of laundry and unending chaos. Poop on the walls. Food splattered on the ceiling. Kids screaming you awake at one-hour intervals. A husband who spends L-O-N-G hours at work and leaves you alone from dawn to dusk with these ornery little dickenses. I know. I know. But trust me, it won’t always be like this.

Be as gentle with yourself and your family as you possibly can. You have undertaken the most difficult challenge of your adult life, infinitely harder than you thought it would be. But trust me when I tell you this: You can make it easier, or you can make it MUCH harder, just by what you choose to see. This is not the time for your “volunteer” gene to go into overdrive at church, or to take on a forty-hour work week. Because you will never get this time back. And neither will your kids.

Don’t worry about your job right now, and get some help if you possibly can so you can catch up on your sleep. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Every moment you spend with them now will pay rich dividends down the line. But now it’s time to pay up.

Breathe. Laugh. Relax. These kids won’t get calmer, or sleepier, or happier if you are a stressed-out mess. So do everyone a favor. Don’t set the bar too high. Get some help — since you don’t have family nearby, au pairs are worth their weight in gold. Keeping them at home, close to you, is going to help the trauma heal. Read about trauma. And stop yelling, or you’ll make it worse.

Protect them, and never let them out of your direct line of vision, even with other kids. Yes, you need a break, and yes those breaks are few and far between. But trauma attracts trauma, and the worst kinds of abuse breeds sneakiness. Keep your kids close, as close as you possibly can as much as you possibly can, if you want those broken little hearts to heal. When you want their attention, whisper. And don’t forget to teach them “feelings” words. Or to get down on their level, and touch them gently when you want to make eye contact.

Resign your dreams and expectations. They may always struggle academically, no matter how many story hours and silly songs you share with them. No matter how many specialists and therapists they see. They may never make the honor roll, but if they keep talking to you, you’re ahead of the game. Spend more time focusing on their gifts, and less on their challenges.

Expect it to hurt . . . but look for the joy. The kids won’t remember if you stood over them while they struggled through their homework. But they’ll never forget it when you put down the rake, and jump in the leaf pile with them! Let them eat the raw cookie dough and sprinkles, and don’t ration the M&Ms so much.

Adoption is hard work. Don’t forget to enjoy the perks!

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Even When…

Sarah 2005Today over at Extraordinary Moms Network I posted a little ditty that almost perfectly sums up where I am as a parent today. Go ahead and have a look … I’ll wait.

She’s fifteen now. Fifteen going on thirty. And I swear to you, there are days when we look at each other and wonder, How on earth am I supposed to live with THIS for three more years?

At least. Best case scenario.

If you ask her, she drew the short straw in the Mother Lottery. Her model yells (or yells back). Drinks (a glass of wine at LEAST twice a week, usually while daughter is giving me the stink eye). Is woefully unfashionable. Cramps her fashion style (“No, you may NOT wear black eye shadow”) and sense of propriety (“Yes, you must wash the pen design off your hands before Mass”). Worst of all: HER mom makes her do chores (like a SLAVE, like emptying the dishwasher and setting the table EVERY DAY and cleaning her room).

I’ll admit, I do get crabby sometimes myself. The only time I wake up without the sound of a howler monkey in my ears is when I’m on a business trip. Each morning I fall over the dog, who is cringing under my feet the moment she enters the room. There is not a lipstick, cookie, or bottle of nail polish I can buy that has a snowball’s chance in hell of winding up anywhere but in her room. She speaks, and the room turns blue. She sees her brother, and drama ensues (a fight or teary-eyed accusations of neglect, depending on the day). Her first mother tells me she was just like this at Sarah’s age, which she says to be comforting but actually terrifies me.

But here’s the thing … I love her. Her color. Her exuberance. Her insatiable need for love that induces her to cuddle up to me as close as possible on the couch at night, and plead for her father to tuck her in at night. I try to imagine what it must be like for her, to BE her. I see how she struggles. And I wish I could swish a wand and make it all better.

But that’s not what I signed up for. That’s not what love is about.

Almost fifteen years ago, we signed up for this. God knows if we’d known the wild ride in store for us, we might have run screaming for the hills. But we didn’t. So we didn’t.

Do I love her as much as I’d have loved “my own child”? I don’t know. There’s really no way to know. But this much I can tell you:  She has taught me, the hard way, what it means to really love someone. Because true love most often comes not in the shape of a heart … but of a cross. It means not loving because, but loving even when.

 

When a Child Leaves Your Home: Thoughts of a Foster-Adoptive Mom

naughty-kidToday a FB friend asked me if I had any advice about how to recover from a disrupted adoption. It got me thinking about the year we had one of our foster kids rehomed for the safety of the younger two (and, I’ll admit it, for my own sanity as well.) Here are the three tips I shared with her, out of my own experience. Would you add anything?
1. Tune out the nay-sayers. We had well-meaning friends from whom we had to distance ourselves for a time, who chastized us for having the child removed from our home. “Don’t you know she’s just testing you? Don’t you know you are making it that much harder for her to bond with anyone, ever again?”
In reality, we had tried for over a year to help our foster child. There came a point, the details of which do not matter, that it became clear to everyone including the social worker that this child needed to be in a home without other children. Thankfully, she blossomed in her new home — though she has harbored anger towards us. Trauma breeds trauma, and unresolved trauma comes out in all kinds of awful ways. And yet, a decade later we know we made the right choice for everyone involved.
2. Adoption is forever. While foster care is by definition a temporary arrangement (reunion is always the ideal, and about 40-50% of foster children do return to their birth parents), adoption is for life, and if your child leaves you cannot simply wash your hands of him or her, or blot that child from your family’s collective memory.
Continue to pray for that child and to make sure (to the extent possible, depending on your situation) that he or she is remembered and taken care of — birthday cards, notes, and perhaps even visits if a safety plan is in place. Not only is it the right thing to do, this will prevent your weakening the bonds you have with the other children in your home (who may otherwise question the security of your attachment to THEM).
The time may come (it certainly came for us) when the child who left will express anger or resentment toward you for your decision, especially if you kept one or more of his or her siblings. Stay strong, and try to be as gentle and kind as you can. Feelings are not facts, and unresolved trauma breeds more trauma. Acknowledge the pain, but do not take it upon yourself.
3. Acknowledge the loss. To yourself. To the children who remain in your home. To your extended family and friends who support you in your grief. Like a divorce, the consequences of the break are real and need to be processed over time. And like a divorce, the fact that there is pain does not automatically mean that the break was not needed.

A Letter to My New-Mom Self (on our 10-Year Gotcha Day)

christophersfirstpicture3Next weekend we celebrate a decade of “official” family life. Ten years since the adoptions were finalized and the kids were officially welcomed into the family . . . and baptized into God’s. We plan to go to Cedar Point with their godparents, to celebrate. This weekend, though, as Sarah and I sit in the living room — her painting designs on her fingernails and watching Girl Meets World, and me typing, my mind drifts back to those first few weeks together. Some parts are such a blur, but others come back with crystal clarity. And so, before those bits get fuzzy, too, I thought I’d write a little letter to my new-mom self.

Dear New-Mom Heidi:

I know it seems impossible right now, when every hour drags as you try to cope with enormous mounds of laundry and unending chaos. Poop on the walls. Food splattered on the ceiling. Kids screaming you awake at one-hour intervals. A husband who spends L-O-N-G hours at work and leaves you alone from dawn to dusk with these ornery little dickenses. I know. I know. But trust me, it won’t always be like this.

Be as gentle with yourself and your family as you possibly can. You have undertaken the most difficult challenge of your adult life, infinitely harder than you thought it would be. But trust me when I tell you this: You can make it easier, or you can make it MUCH harder, just by what you choose to see. This is not the time for your “volunteer” gene to go into overdrive at church, or to take on a forty-hour work week. Because you will never get this time back. And neither will your kids.

Don’t worry about your job right now, and get some help if you possibly can so you can catch up on your sleep. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Every moment you spend with them now will pay rich dividends down the line. But now it’s time to pay up.

Breathe. Laugh. Relax. These kids won’t get calmer, or sleepier, or happier if you are a stressed-out mess. So do everyone a favor. Don’t set the bar too high. Get some help — since you don’t have family nearby, au pairs are worth their weight in gold. Keeping them at home, close to you, is going to help the trauma heal. Read about trauma. And stop yelling, or you’ll make it worse.

Protect them, and never let them out of your direct line of vision, even with other kids. Yes, you need a break, and yes those breaks are few and far between. But trauma attracts trauma, and the worst kinds of abuse breeds sneakiness. Keep your kids close, as close as you possibly can as much as you possibly can, if you want those broken little hearts to heal. When you want their attention, whisper. And don’t forget to teach them “feelings” words. Or to get down on their level, and touch them gently when you want to make eye contact.

Resign your dreams and expectations. They may always struggle academically, no matter how many story hours and silly songs you share with them. No matter how many specialists and therapists they see. They may never make the honor roll, but if they keep talking to you, you’re ahead of the game. Spend more time focusing on their gifts, and less on their challenges.

Expect it to hurt . . . but look for the joy. The kids won’t remember if you stood over them while they struggled through their homework. But they’ll never forget it when you put down the rake, and jump in the leaf pile with them! Let them eat the raw cookie dough and sprinkles, and don’t ration the M&Ms so much.

Adoption is hard work. Don’t forget to enjoy the perks!

Hope to see you at Cedar Point! 

The Drop Box: A Movie for Lent!

TheDropBox_SlideThe story is told of a small boy who walks along the beach, tossing starfish that have washed up on shore back into the great expanse of blue. “What are you doing?” demands a stranger walking by. “Don’t you see how many there are? What does it matter if you save just a few?”

Bending down to retrieve another sea creature, the boy responds, “It matters to this one.”

Korea has always had a special place in my heart. For about a year in my twenties I studied the language and cultivated a taste for kim chi, having been invited to work at a blind mission in Seoul. In the end, I did not go — I was unable to get the needed visa to work as a short-term missionary. But I had heard about the sad fate that awaited even young children who are disabled. Many are abandoned by their families, who cannot or will not care for them. Many are turned out or abandoned on the streets.

It is this sad fact that makes this remarkable documentary doubly inspiring. The Drop Box, a limited engagement documentary about Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, tells the story of a man who has dedicated his life to saving children, many of them with special needs, who were abandoned by their parents who were unwilling or unable to care for them. He created a special “box” outside his church, where desperate women could leave their infants rather than expose them to die on the streets. Over time, Pastor Lee adopted a dozen such children, and found homes for hundreds more.

And each one has touched his heart.

You would think a movie like this would be depressing. Thousands of children without parents, many of them destined to live out their short lives separated from their families, never able to know where they came from or to whom they belonged.

But watching this movie, you can’t help but be moved by the joy. The joy of the children. The joy of the pastor and the “God’s Love Community.” Although the joy is often through tears. “My heart drops,” says Pastor Lee. “When I hear that sound [of the drop box], . .We installed the baby box with God’s heart. At the top of the box, it reads, ‘For my father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.’ (Ps 27:10). God loves life more than the world. He sent life to the earth for his glory.”

Go and see this movie. Click here for viewing locations and times.