“A Walk in the Woods” with Mom

Every night before she goes to sleep, I read to Mom. Sometimes it’s a devotional like Jesus Calling or a chapter from her Bible. Sometimes I give her a “sneak preview” of one of the books I’m editing. (She particularly liked Forgiveness Makes You Free, by Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga.

If you liked the movie, read the book … Heck, even if you DIDN’T, read it anyway!

This weeks’ book du jour is from my favorites shelf, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. For those who haven’t yet stumbled on this one (and who missed the movie), it’s a delightful romp about two middle-aged men who set put one spring to walk the two-thousand something miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Now, my mother and I have some history with this particular trail. When I was a Junior in Girl Scouts, and my mom was the troop leader, she and her friend decided to take a group of us to High Point State Park to practice our trail marking skills. She divided us into three groups: The first group was to mark the trail, second to follow the marks, and the third (also presumably following) would clean up as they went. We would all meet back at the car for Smores before heading back to the school parking lot to our parents.

Our third group fared best. When the second group managed to erase the trail marks in their eagerness to read the signs, the third group merely followed the path back to the car. An hour later, when the other two groups didn’t show up, the leader decided to take her group back to the school so their parents wouldn’t worry. Meanwhile, the first group had missed the park’s markings, and took a “shortcut” that put us on the Appalachian Trail. Two hours later, my mother was standing on the side of the road with eight middle-schoolers (group two had caught up with her), miles away from where we should have been.

This was long before cell phones (or Amber Alerts). As dusk fell, we emerged from the woods and found ourselves on the side of a (relatively) busy highway. And so, when a bearded gentlemen in a Volkswagen bus pulled up and offered us a lift back to the park … I guess some angels do wear flannel.

I don’t remember what happened after that, other than (a) we arrived back in the school parking lot three hours after we said we’d be there and (b) it was the last troop outing I remember my mother leading. Apart from missing the smores (the greedy guts in the first group ate them all), we were none the worse for wear. It had been an adventure, and one of the few clear memories I still have of my scouting experiences. Not all bad, right?

So … this week as Mom and I read this Appalachian Trail adventure,  and laugh over the antics of Bill and Katz, I’m happy to find that Mom is alert and seems to be enjoying it more than some of the other books I’ve tried. “I just love the Appalachian Trail,” she murmurs.

So do I, Mom. So do I.

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Night Blessings

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Are you currently the primary caregiver for a parent or other loved one? Would you like a safe place to go for prayer or just to vent? I’ve recently started a “Catholic Caregivers” site on Facebook … It’s a closed group, but you are welcome to join!

These last few days have been sad ones for Mom. Lots of tears and confusion. She keeps writing and writing, but it only increases her frustration. She doesn’t know how to explain the conflict within her, and she is fighting a battle against accusers none of us can see, let alone help her to resist.

Last night as I tucked her I could see that she was on the edge of tears, and I wanted so much to be able to ease her mind. So I laid down beside her and sang to her some of the songs she sang to me as a little girl. As she grew calm, I decided to try a little ritual that I adapted from something that I experienced for the first time as I prepared to become Catholic, when my sponsor blessed each part of my body in preparation for the journey ahead of me — into the Church.

Now, my mother is a lifelong evangelical Christian, but she is familiar with the little rituals of Catholic prayer, and I hoped that this would help to comfort her. So I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and said, “I bless my mother’s mind. All her life her brain stored songs and stories and wisdom that she shared with her daughters. Now there are snarls and worn places that are hurting her. Please heal her mind, Lord Jesus.”

Then I blessed her eyes and said, “I bless her eyes. She looked out at the world and saw God’s beauty, and looked at me and saw God at work in my life. Please help her to see that she is a beloved daughter of God.”

Then I went on blessing the other parts of her body, ending with the feet. “I bless her feet, shod with the Gospel of peace. She traveled all over the country to take care of her family, and never complained. Please ready her feet for that final journey, that she would walk with you always.”

Mom didn’t say anything as I left, but kissed me back as I bent down to say goodnight. I think the darkness has closed in around her, and I’m not sure she can hear truth from my lips right now. But I know her angels are taking those blessings to Jesus. And I believe that he will be able to reach where I cannot.

Today the chaplain at her daycare asked us all to come in so he could give mom a “certificate of innocence.” He told mom that he knew she was worried that someone was wanting to bring her to court over something that had happened years ago. He had checked, and everyone has agreed that she has done nothing deserving of standing trial. So he was giving her the certificate to remind her that she is not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. It’s a tangible reminder that she is where she belongs.

I don’t know if either of these things are going to have the desired effect. When you are dealing with a dementia patient, so much is happening beneath the surface that he or she may never be able to articulate, let alone resolve.

But God is merciful. And he loves his children — even the weak and confused ones. For the weakness and confusion is temporary. Shadows of the glory to come.

 

“Are You My Friend?”

marymarthaDo you ever look around and wonder who your friends are? I sometimes do. I’m naturally introverted, and yet the combined effects of several relocations, caring for two special-needs kids (and now my mother), and endless work-related social media interactions (I’m an editor) have depleted my little black book on those rare occasions when I’m craving a girls’ night out.

Yesterday I was discussing this with an author friend who happens to fall in the category of both professional and personal connection. She has met my extended family, and made rosaries for my kids. I’ve slept at her house, and call her whenever I’m in her area to get together.

Apparently this sense of rootlessness is something that many women experience. She also made me sit up and take notice when she identified what is often the source of the problem. “There are persons, and there are personas,” she reminded me. “When you are a writer, you cultivate a persona that you let out into the world … but it’s not the same as the real you, known to your real friends.”

The moment she said this, a light bulb went on. Do editors have personas, too? Of course! So … how do I set aside the persona and let the “real me” out to play, to establish real friendships?

Interestingly, my friend’s first suggestion was … silence. Spending time together in silence, “until the uncomfortable silences become comfortable.” Of course, this isn’t something that can happen on Facebook, or in any other social media venue. It takes physical presence. It means stepping away from the computer and inviting others into the messiness of ordinary life.

This is risky, of course. I’ve had women — from church, for example — who have reached out and made an effort to connect with my daughter and me. It always surprises me a bit, to experience such kindness, knowing that I’m not really in a position to reciprocate meaningfully. What is more, the way my life is set up right now, it seems almost impossible to set up regular get-togethers. And yet, this is exactly the kind of effort true intimacy in friendship requires.

The topic of friendship is very much on trend these days. Emily Jaminet and Michele Fahnle’s The Friendship Project is being discussed in book clubs and parish women’s groups across the country. Elizabeth Foss published True Friend, a four-week devotional to help kick-start friendship in your own life.

And yet all these wonderful books won’t do a bit of good unless I’m willing to venture into that scary territory of vulnerability and initiate contact. Invite someone over (or invite myself over) for a cup of tea. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bookstore who is carrying a book I’ve recently read. Even (*gasp*) take that water aerobics class for us grannies-in-training and chat up the friendly looking lady on the kickboard next to me.

Because every decades-old friendship begins with the touch of a real, live person.

 

#WomanSpeak… at the Dinner Table

IMG_2966Every night at dinnertime, it’s the same routine: Mom painstakingly circles the table, putting each place setting carefully in order. Cups and plates, silverware and napkins, condiments and trivets, each has a rightful place on the cloth. As dinner is called, she waits for my son to pull out her chair so she can settle in and wait to be served.

She doesn’t say much as the kids tease and squabble, and we parents ride herd, hoping to turn it into a meaningful connection rather than a free-for-all. She just smiles, sometimes knowingly and other times absently. When I bring out the squirt bottle and administer justice when things get too out of control, I sometimes hear a chuckle. And when she speaks, the whole table grows quiet, waiting to hear what she has to say.

Meals are such a microcosm of family life. My culinary skills were honed at an early age, and I learned to take pride in cooking for my family, expressing my love for them by creating beautiful family memories around the kitchen table. While most of the time I manage to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less, I enjoy cooking on weekends when I can slow down and put together something delicious, something a bit more memorable. Something that will be savored, and will inspire those I love to slow down, put away the electronics, and enjoy each other.

As time has passed, this particular expression of motherly love is too often downgraded to a chore to be resented and, when possible, delegated. But when this happens, something important is lost to the cultural zeitgeist, which demands that men and women be equal, dammit. Each chore split fifty-fifty because a man should be called upon to do anything a woman needs to do (and vice versa).

Me? I kind of miss the days when mothers understood the influence they wielded within the family. When adults understood (and taught to the next generation) that these gestures of love and respect matter, that they are the glue of family life. I confess I liked it when men and women both took pride in what they wore, how they carried themselves, how they spent their time; how they treated others in public and private meant something. There was a common moral code of conduct that was understood to be in the best interests of everyone. You held up your end, and focused more on your personal responsibilities than your personal rights.

Looking back, I appreciate the struggle my own parents endured to keep us going. Dad drove buses and served in the military, and commuted three hours each day to provide for his family, while my mother stayed home with us. They seldom had two extra pennies to rub together, but every last bill was paid in full. Eventually. Even if that meant eating a lot of soup and wearing only hand-me-downs. Mom made it work, though we didn’t realize how stressful it was at the time. It’s no wonder she had migraines.

Time passed, and once more Mom and I are under the same roof. I feel certain that she doesn’t completely understand some of the choices I’ve made, particularly regarding our work/life balance. I’ve made very different choices than she did … and those choices, like hers, deeply affected our own children in ways we couldn’t fully appreciate at that time. As I’ve often said to my kids, “You can choose your actions, but not always the consequences.” That truism has reverberated in my head quite often lately.

As women, we speak as eloquently through our choices and actions as wives, mothers, and women, as we do through our words. What we say and do, perhaps especially when it comes to those thankless tasks no one notices, matters. God created both fathers and mothers, and yet they are not interchangeable. What we put on the table — and say at the table — speaks volumes to those we love. With every gesture, every sigh, every directive, we are shaping not just our own family, but that of generations to come.

Because we are not raising victims. We are raising hopes.

How a Caregiver Spells “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

generationsThis week I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how family roles and dynamics change — and don’t change all that much — once dementia enters the picture. Navigating those changes takes a lot of energy, willpower, and … well, sensitivity. And to be honest, that last one does not come easy to me. I’m the kind of person who can organize and execute (pardon the word) complex events and projects. When it hits the fan, I can come up with a Plan B, C, and D quickly and without a lot of fuss.

But as I was reminded earlier this week, people are not projects or events. And they don’t always fit neatly into our plans — and have some pretty big feelings when you try to impose that plan upon them. When my husband and I decided to take mom out of the home she’d been living in and bring her to live with us, our entire family breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yes, it meant getting used to the cold, and not seeing her old church friends every week. And it meant going from the quiet, controlled environment of a memory care facility to the boisterous and often chaotic one here. But she seemed happy. “She is always smiling in the pictures you post on Facebook,” Dad commented.

It turns out, however, that our lawyer was right when he advised us, “Your relationship may change once you stop being the ‘rescuer’ who takes her out of the facility for the day and become her fulltime caregiver. She may turn on you … It’s not easy to grow old and lose your independence, even when decisions are being made for you by someone who loves you dearly.”

And he was right. This week I also discovered that other family relationships can be affected by the new arrangement as well. Hurts and regrets from the past, feelings from the present, and fears about the future can make for some uncomfortable and even painful interactions, no matter how much two people love each other. And when that happens, preserving the relationship means showing a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

  • Recognize that there may be underlying feelings, issues, and concerns that must be acknowledged on both sides.
  • Encourage the other person to tell you, privately and confidentially, what they are seeing, feeling, and observing. Hear them out, even if you don’t agree with everything being said.
  • Seek outside assistance and perspective from those who are familiar with your particular situation. Sometimes having additional information can help.
  • Positivity can be a gift when a relationship is struggling. Remind the other person of what she does well, and how she contributes to your life.
  • Email is generally not the best way to resolve conflicts. It reduces the ability to offer empathy, eye contact, and elicit human contact.
  • Compassion is as much about what you don’t say as what you DO say. Sometimes the most compassionate response is … silence.
  • Touch. I once heard it said there are three parts to every good apology … the words (“I’m sorry”), the acknowledgment (“I should have… shouldn’t have … please forgive me.”), and the touch (hand on shoulder, handshake, or even simple eye contact with a smile). That personal connection can be so important when someone is feeling sad, lonely, or upset.

What are some other ways you’ve found effective in showing those you love (particularly those with dementia) respect?

Traveling with Dementia

mom going to seattleThis week my mother and I flew to Seattle to visit my sister Chris. It was the first time in the Pacific Northwest for the both of us, and we both had bucket list items to check off: My mother wanted to see a whale, or the coast of Alaska; I dreamed of having tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

Sunday Mom gets her wish. I got mine LAST Sunday, when I took the Clipper Ship Cruise to Victoria for the day. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be … and I hope Mom has a whale of a tale after our excursion, too.

The thing is, we almost didn’t make the trip. The day before we were to leave, Mom’s delicate internal workings kicked up a fuss, requiring several doses of Imodium to get it under control. I remember what her psychiatrist had said on the last visit. “Your mom may be getting to the stage where travel is too difficult for her. People may need to start coming to her, because travel can be disorienting for dementia patients.”

Mom insisted that she wanted to go see Chris. I think that, like many times in life, the prospect was infinitely more intriguing than the reality. However, we started early, left plenty of time for rests, and contacted the airport ahead of time so they would have a wheelchair and attendant ready for every leg of the trip. We got there safe and sound … and though she is sleeping more than usual, she seems to be having a good time. I know Chris and I are enjoying this quality time with her, too.

Here are some things we did that I think makes the difference between a “not bad” trip and a great trip.

  • Don’t over-plan the itinerary … and build in some down time for both of you. The first two days mom stayed with my sister in her apartment, while I took a trip to Victoria on my own. Bliss.
  • Don’t cheap out. Pay for convenience. We got super-cheap airfares on Delta (who is now my airline of choice for traveling with my mother). It cost extra to check bags, but I went ahead and ponied up so I didn’t have to drag everything we both needed through two airports. I also sent a package via Amazon with toiletry products directly to my sister about a week ahead of time. Worth every penny.
  • Keep routines as familiar as possible. Bring a favorite pillow, her favorite bedtime reader, her favorite tea. Let the host know what kinds of supports would be most helpful (commode, shower bench or handles, mattress pads, etc.). Remember to pack a “travel bag” similar to the one you keep in your own car with over the counter and everyday meds, extra pants and sweater, plastic bags, disinfecting wipes, a change of clothes, list of doctors and emergency contacts (including your own cell phone number), copies of medical card and ID, and snacks and water. Put it in the rental when you get to your destination.
  • As best you can, anticipate the unexpected. Tape a small card with your name, phone number, and medical condition information inside your loved one’s shoe, in case you are separated. When you arrange for the wheelchair, you should also alert the airline that you will be traveling with an adult with cognitive impairments, in case he or she has a breakdown at the airport.
  • Be prepared to pay a price for the adventure. Either during the trip or afterwards, you may experience some temporary setbacks (tears, blank-face, belligerence, or a flare up of other symptoms). Your loved one may be happy to see your host, but be uncooperative or demanding with you, her regular caregiver. I’ve learned not to take it personally, but to chalk it up to the loved one feeling tired or overwhelmed. Tomorrow is another day. Make the most of it.
  • Remember to have fun yourself. Have your favorite treat or drink on hand, and let (or even ask) the host family members or pay a sitter to take over some of the everyday chores or just sit with your loved one so you can take a break as well. Put Netflix on your cell phone to keep your loved one (and yourself) entertained during down times.
  • Slow down, breathe deep, and notice the little pleasures of life. It all passes so fast … and the best memories are often found in the things you didn’t plan.

 

Daycare Dilemma

woman  Sneaky Pete is on the warpath again. At least, I think that’s the source of my mother’s tears this afternoon when she came home from daycare.  “They took a vote,” she said plaintively. “They told me I drool too much to stay there, and they voted 100% that I had to go.”

Now, I suppose it’s possible that one of the other clients had said something nasty. Eldercare, I’ve found, can be a lot like going back to middle school: there are rich kids and drones, physically fit and couch potatoes. Above all, there are mean girls whose sense of social propriety has gone the way of nighttime continence.

“Who was it that said these things to you?” her afternoon aide inquired gently. “If we know who it is, we can do something about it.” Mom shook her head stubbornly. She did not want us to fight her battles. She just wanted a safe place to cry.

After a hearty dinner and a soothing bath, it was time for our nightly tuck in. Tonight’s psalm in Jesus Calling was especially sweet: “In peace will I lie down and fall asleep. For you, O Lord, make me secure” (Psalm 4:8).

Growing old is not for the faint of heart. It must be tough, losing control of functions that you once took for granted … even the ability to eat a bit of food or sing without drooling. Or have a clear sense of self, without being tormented by the never-ending accusations of Sneaky Pete. Lord, help me to remember this when I am tempted to lose patience. Help me to show love, to give her reassurance, so that she might find the strength to endure.