Stories and thoughts about family and life

One Month Later

It’s been a month.  You can put any inflection on that you’d like.  A month has passed, and boy has it been a doozy.

Mom passed at 6:10 on June 29.  I think that’s etched into my brain.  Two days later Daddy was so sick he ended up spending the better part of a week in the hospital (nothing life-threatening, and he’s much better).  I can’t decide if that was a welcome distraction or more overwhelming activity than my poor brain was prepared to handle.  At any rate, a month has passed, and now I sit to finish the tasks I’ve put off far too long: thank you cards, and cleaning up things.

As I go through the soft green bag the funeral home provided us, I’m flooded with all those emotions again.  I re-read the obituary, which was so thoughtfully written by my brother-in-law, Les.  I read the cards and the book the funeral home put together with  the signatures of all those people who hugged me that day–many were a blur at the moment.  I sat and reflected on the people I know I saw, but who never signed the book.  I know they were there, and all those hugs meant so much that day.  I appreciate that the funeral home, so well-versed in this process, had the forethought to capture things in the book for me: the flowers on the casket, the geneaology of her family, etc.,  I know this is their business, but it’s comforting to know that no detail was forgotten, and how they appreciate what you’ll need/want to know later.

My mom and I weren’t as close as I would have liked.    I thought a lot about that as I prepared something to say that day.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to speak–I had actually thrown away what I had prepared, but decided en route to Ft. Smith that I really would regret if I didn’t at least try.  I talked about Mom coming from Belgium, and how that must have been quite the adjustment for her when she found herself on a farm in Booneville, AR.  I told a story about when the FHA person came to review the items on the farm and asked Mom about the “bush hog” and she confidently replied that Daddy had slaughtered it a few months before.    As I wrote the words to speak that day, I thought a lot about how I had always thought of myself as Daddy’s girl, but that I had to acknowledge that I have some of my best traits from my mother, which I suspect is why we didn’t always see eye to eye.  I had gained my tenacity, my willingness to fight for what I think is right, and my strong will from her.   I was able to deliver my words with relatively strong composure, only “losing it” a time or two.

I think regardless of the relationship you have with someone, you have a hole when they’re gone.  I feel for Daddy, and his missing her after 48 years together.  I tread rather lightly when I speak of her, not sure if I’m saying the right thing or not.  We’re able to share fun stories about her and laugh about things, but I see that faraway look in his eye.  My pain is nothing compared to his, I know.  I know each day will get better, and at least she didn’t have to suffer long-term, and all of those comforting things you’re supposed to think when someone is gone.

I have been truly blessed by people who have reached out to me in the past month with wonderful texts, e-mails, cards, letters, flowers, and other gifts.  Thank you all for helping me get through this time in my life.  I never imagined I would be losing a parent in my 40s.  Mom wasn’t in great health, and I knew her time with us was preciously short, but it still hits you in ways you can’t comprehend at that moment, and your parents are such fixtures in your life that it’s hard to think about not having them.   Thank you all for loving me and sharing in my grief.


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I’m not a caretaker


The trips to the nursing home usually have some degree of interesting activity along with them.  Seldom is it simply a drop off of supplies or a check-in.  It might start out that way, but it seldom ends with simply that.  With each passing year I realize how woefully ill-equipped I am for caretaking of my elders.

My mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s Disease.  This makes conversations around and involving her take on a new level of complexity.  She upsets easily and she fixates on details which are hard to overcome.  Add to that a roommate in her room who is bedridden and demonstrating her needs as we try to visit and you’ve got the makings for quite an eventful visit.

My father-in-law accompanied my husband and me to my mother-in-law’s room.  They no longer room together, and we have to change floors to find my mother-in-law has just finished lunch.  My father-in-law unceremoniously removes her from the dining facility and wheels her back to her room.  She looks at my husband and me as she passes by and says hello.  When dealing with someone with such an advanced disease, you want to believe that it’s recognition in her eyes, but it’s honestly just politeness.  She never knows me anymore, and she seldom recognizes my husband (which breaks my heart for him).

We follow them into her room and he helps her transfer from the wheelchair to the chair. She had been mumbling something to Louis just before us entering the room.  As she was moving into the chair, she said it again “I’m going to have to find some place to live.  I can’t stay here.”  My sweet husband, unlike me, has the patience of Job in situations like this.  He is amazing with our Boy Scouts and can talk them through things long after I would have had to leave the room and catch my breath.  He has been enormously patient with his parents and their questions, needs, and demands.  He and his sister are a united front on their cause and it’s a site to behold, especially after so many stories I’ve heard about other siblings.

He thoughtfully considers his response and says “you are living here.  You need to be here to get the help you need.”  Now, I should mention as well that my mother-in-law cannot hear and no longer has a functioning hearing aid.  She’s destroyed each one she has because she can’t remember having them in her ear and ends up pulling them out, stepping on and crushing them.   She cannot hear much at all, which I’m sure adds to the almost sickeningly comical tones our conversations must take on.  He has to repeat this sentence a couple of times, as does my father-in-law.  She continues to persist, “I can live with you,” motioning toward Louis, “or I can live with my sister and her husband but I can’t stay here, and I can’t live with him” as she gestures toward my father-in-law.   Again they try to reason with her.  We can see she’s getting upset, which is a key that it’s time to change the subject.  I pull up my phone and show her a picture from Brennan’s most recent 7th grade basketball game.  “Oh, my he’s grown!” she exclaims.  My husband and I beam that she seems to recognize him.  “Is he enjoying college?”

My husband tries to gently, although very loudly, explain that Brennan is in high school, and has a way to go before college.  She remarks about the cost of college and how we’ll pay for that and then she’s moved on to something else.  “I need to go to the bathroom,” she says.  I decide this is an excellent job for me: “I’ll go get the nurse.”  I run out to the nurses station and bring back her nurse.  My husband and I decide we should step into the hall to be polite and give her some privacy.

As we stand in the hall, one of the residents comes walking down the hall, with a big smile on her face.  “You’ve lost your hall pass, huh?” I chuckled, thinking that was pretty clever.  We’re in the hall, and we’re not moving.  Hall pass–yeah, that’s pretty funny.  Like how we used to have hall passes in school.  “Yes,” I remark.  “I don’t know what on Earth we did with them!”   I laugh at my wit, and she responds “I’ve lost mine too.  The nurses won’t give me another.”  I search her face for a second to determine if this is a continuation of the joke.  Sadly, it is not.  Now I feel like a heel for laughing.

Thankfully, the restroom break is over and we can return to the room.  My mother-in-law never missed a beat, asking about various financials, and remarking that she needs a place to live, but now that she won’t live with him (gesturing toward Louis).  “Where are my credit cards?”  she inquires.  “I used to have credit cards in my wallet.  Where is my wallet?”  I announce that I have her wallet, but that there are no credit cards left.  My father-in-law tries to explain that we had to close all their accounts and destroy their cards when they came to the nursing home.  She’s not having that.  She keeps asking and he finally makes a ripping gesture to demonstrate the cards have been destroyed.

She escalates the conversation and announces that she should have social security money (which she does), but she knows she doesn’t.  She knows that my father-in-law is getting his money and her money too.  Louis tries to explain.  She’s not hearing it.  She wants someone to take her to the social security office and fix this.  She reiterates, pointing a finger at my father-in-law, that she knows he’s getting her social security AND his, and then proclaims “you’re a BAD BOY.”

It’s almost like when your toddler has done something which really shouldn’t be funny, but at the same time is almost adorable and sweet and innocent.   I was watching my husband’s reaction, unsure what to do.   My mother-in-law now changed the subject a bit and said that she knew she had HIM (pointing at Louis) to blame for not being able to leave, and not being able to ride the elevator, and not having anything.  He was staring at my father-in-law, who finally shrugged, and tried to change the subject again.   I was grateful in that moment that she didn’t recognize me.  There’s no telling what thing I would have done to her.

Meanwhile, in the next bed is her new roommate, who is bedridden.  She is having quite the conversation with herself, although we can’t quite make out what she says until she yells across the room “I need help.  I need to go to the bathroom.”  I jump up and announce that I’ll get the nurse (remember the part where I don’t need to take care of people?), and I march out to the nurses station.  The nurse says she’ll be right in, but that the patient has a Foley, so she doesn’t need to get up.  I decide I can handle this, and I tell the nurse (who is right in the middle of something) that I’ve got this.

I go back into room, feeling confident that I’m going to solve this lady’s issue, even if I can’t make my mother-in-law feel any better or be any more settled.  I walk over to the bed and say to the lady that she has a catheter and she can just go.  She doesn’t have to actually get up and go to the bathroom.  I’m about to turn and walk away, exceptionally proud that I’ve handled this, when she holds up two bony fingers and says “but. . .”  Oh, no!  I am NOT the one to deal with this!   Nothing beyond number 1 for me!

Another trip to the nurses station and an announcement to the nurse that she’s going to have to come and handle this.  I’m not equipped for this kind of assistance.  She and her coworker half-giggled at me as she thanked me for trying.

There’s no telling what those people see day in and day out.  I tell her nurse every time we’re there that I have such a great appreciation for them.  Being a nurse is hard enough, but having a patient who can’t remember what you told them two minutes ago has to be ridiculously difficult.  I know it is for the family.  Her nurse keeps telling me that it’s no big deal, and that she’s called to do this.  She says that it’s okay for us to be unsure what to do, and not know how to respond.  I’m glad to hear this every time she says it, because I seriously don’t know what to say or do most of the time.

We try to simply find a little humor in each visit.  I think that’s the only thing that gets us through sometimes.  Like my Daddy says “just as soon laugh as cry about it.”  So I’ll choose to laugh, until it’s time to cry.


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Nursing Home Know-How

I’ve toyed very seriously with the idea of writing a couple of books. One of those is for people dealing with elderly parents at varying stages, and I keep telling myself that when I feel like I have “enough” knowledge I’m going to get right on that. The problem is that there is never “enough.” You think you know how things are going to go, and you think you’ve gotten into some type of rhythm, but that only lasts about two weeks before a whole new situation has put you right back into the confusion chair.
Some of the things that happen with my in-laws have become humorous. Honestly, they have to be, or we’d all go insane. My husband and I share with his sister and her family the daily goings-on of my in-laws and we all just have to shake our heads and smile. Some of the things are really funny, and some are so terribly sad that you just can’t find humor or that the things you do find humor in seem morbid to someone on the outside.
Just like enduring a bad relationship and finally realizing why the divorce rate is so high, you find yourself in uncharted waters here, and you endure the best way you can. The really sad times come when you have to treat your parents like children, denying them things you dearly would love to give them because it’s not “good for them.” We’ve had one than one conversation about just throwing caution to the wind and letting them really enjoy their remaining time here, but that is quickly reversed by the seriousness of the $1,000 pharmacy bill because of additional insulin, or the $250 bill each month for pull-ups, or the reality that I can’t get Medicaid approved for them quickly enough, and struggle constantly to try to get that in place to assure they will have care going forward. The see-saw is getting really old. Plus, it’s hard to reason with an 80 year old woman who doesn’t realize where she is half the time about why she can’t just have ice cream any time she wants it, or taking the administrative rights away from a 75 year old’s computer because he can’t comprehend what he’s clicking on well enough to stop downloading viruses. I don’t appreciate this juxtaposition of give and take that it seems we’re always evaluating.
It makes me sad on levels I can barely comprehend, let along articulate. My mother-in-law and I have certainly had our spells where we’ve not gotten along over the years, but I still recognize her as part of my family and as my husband and I were married so young, I view both of his parents as my parents as well (as does he). We’re blessed to still have all four of them at this point in our lives, and that our children have been able to know all of their grandparents (as I didn’t). My father-in-law and I have always been relatively close, and I’ve enjoyed his company. They both do things which drive me crazy, but I’m sure I do things that make them crazy too.
The moments of exceptional frustration intertwine with the blah humdrum of routine which intertwines even further with sadness or the occasional comedic episode. The comedy is becoming less and less, as the frustration is more and more. The routine gets lost in the middle somewhere, and the sadness takes a passenger seat to the frustration. The emotional roller coaster one is on when caring for elderly parents is nothing short of terrifying and long. Your own life gets lost in theirs, and you feel like you’re not allowed to feel your own emotions anymore for stopping to deal with theirs.
I’m ashamed to say that I awoke in the middle of the night a few nights ago, thinking about a trip we have planned to Disney in December with our kids (we try to go every couple of years) and thinking that I should be prepared for the fact that one of them might die just before we leave, or even while we were gone. I need to have a plan for all of that. I say ashamed not because I think we shouldn’t get to go to Disney with our kids, but that I feel a bit of resentment at the time we’ve lost with our children in the past five years. I can’t even count the Sunday afternoons they have entertained themselves on the couch watching television while my husband and I did ‘bills and pills’ where he would shower his dad or help with his mom and I would handle the finances. We had realized even then that we had to count out their meds, because they would over or under medicate if left to their own devices. We sat in a teary-eyed conversation one night, promising them we would keep them in their house as long as possible, and we kept our promise, but I don’t know if it was more beneficial or hurtful.
I’ve pretty much stopped going to visit them in the nursing home. My mother-in-law usually doesn’t know who I am, and it’s upsetting to the kids to go. We take them when they are interested, and we don’t push it when they’re not. They’ve sat quietly in the room and tried to engage in conversations, only to find that neither one of my in-laws have much of an attention span anymore. My mother-in-law doesn’t know who we are half the time, and it seems to upset her when I’m there. She’s always tolerated me in my relationship with her son, and I sense some of that anxiety comes through when she’s confronted with me. Maybe I’m just projecting. Maybe it’s me who is uncomfortable. Maybe I’m imagining the whole thing. My father-in-law will only visit in short spurts now as well. I wonder if that’s a subconscious decision on his part to let us “off the hook” now that they’re in the nursing home. I wonder if we’re just another random occurrence throughout their day. He fixates on things that would never have bothered him before, and he’s taken to calling me 10 times over the same thing when he decides he needs something. Louis is the one who actually goes by and interacts. He has to anyway–he’s the only one to whom his mother responds positively, and his dad only has requests of things he wants brought to him. This is more annoying than anything for Louis, I think. There is not much general “how are you” conversation. They ask the same three or four questions, don’t really comment on the answers, and then issue their list of requests. These trips aren’t much fun for Louis, I’d wager.
I can imagine how demeaning this life is for them. I went out of my way to make it as comfortable and “home-like” for them as possible, rearranging the room and creating a small living area where they could sit side by side in their chairs and watch television. Still, they never leave the room anymore, save the occasional walk to the courtyard. They have their meals delivered to their room, and they sit there hour after hour, day after day, week after week. They have a few regular visitors, and they seem pleased with that, although one of the visitors told me recently that Helen seems to not recognize anyone anymore–she acts as if the visitor is a stranger who just wandered in from the hall. This is exceptionally difficult for Louis, too. The last time he had to take them to an appointment, his mother kept calling him by his father’s name, and kept insisting that it was time to go “home.” We agonized for a long time over moving them from their house to their apartment. We even had entertained the idea of selling both houses and getting something with an inlaws quarters. A good friend of mine advised me against it, and I’m grateful she did. I don’t think we’re physically, not to mention emotionally, equipped for the things we’re seeing now. Helen is essentially dead weight, and needs to be lifted in and out of bed or the chair. She simply sits on the side of her mattress, much as a toddler would, waiting for you to dress or undress her, but not even offering to lift her arm or leg anymore. I can’t imagine what must be occurring in her mind, and we’ve seen the occasional manipulation she used to create now give way to complete and total confusion and loss. She literally has no idea where she is or what’s going on most of the time. She gets very excited when we bring her a treat, and very upset when she asks for one and is denied. Other than that, she doesn’t engage much.
My father-in-law called me this morning as I was running some errands. He told me that she’s started asking for her mother, and she becomes very upset when he tries to explain. I don’t know why, but this really has sent a chill through me today. She’s engaged in similar behavior before, but she’s usually not quite this adamant. I’m hopeful that when my husband gets home from his campout and can go see her, he can help calm her down; but honestly something about this feels different than the previous times. I have a strange sense of foreboding. And I feel the fear my father-in-law feels–the fear he projected in his voice when he called me. I debated going to see them myself this morning, but I’m trying to decide if I will cause more harm than good, and I certainly don’t want to make the situation worse. It really is something to watch how soothing it is for her to have Louis close-by.
I remember when my dad put his mother in a nursing home in town, as well as a neighbor of ours going into the nursing home. Both were good experiences. They enjoyed it, and made friends. They had people to look after them and ensure they had a good meal. They could socialize when they wanted and rest when they wanted. I think that’s the idyllic picture, and I wish very much they could have had that experience. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear it’s going to work out that way. My sister-in-law had pointed out one night that they’ve become quite co-dependent, and they each need to have the other one close-by, but it’s also meant that they don’t try to engage anyone else. I often wonder what we might have changed if we had it to do over again.
I’ve had several conversations with my husband about whether we would have pushed for assisted living right out of the gate when we moved them out of their homes. If we had done that, would they still be able to live there? What if we had left them in the house? Maybe we should have just hired a private duty nurse? The realities always come back, though. There wasn’t enough money to do any of that. We probably waited too long to move them out as it was. Paul nearly died last October and November, which is what brought into sharp focus how bad Helen’s condition really was. We had no idea the amount of covering for her he had been doing. My husband assures me that this all means they’re in the right place, and they probably should have been there sooner. This was confirmed when we found his mom’s medical records from over a year ago that said she already needed nursing home care. Why didnt’ he tell us? I’m sure he was afraid we would separate them. We’ve been concerned for quite some time that she was weighing too heavily on him and bringing him down too.
I have to admire Louis’ sister, who can take a much more clinical, hands-off approach. She understands the physiology of it all, and she can appreciate that this is a simple process of deterioration. While it’s sad, it just is how it is and we have to deal the best way we can. Leave it to me to second-guess and wonder whether I’ve done everything appropriately.
So, back to the book idea. You can appreciate why I feel like I don’t have the knowledge-base to be a subject matter expert, huh? I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’d like to say that you handle a situation and you know better how to handle the next one, but I think in the case of elderly care, that’s very difficult. No two cases seem to be alike.

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I fired up my trusty GMC and headed west before dawn on Friday morning. I had slept Thursday night, but not too well. I was worried about Daddy, and felt a sense of urgency to get to him quickly. I stopped at the gas station and grabbed a coke, a protein bar, and some BC powder: the breakfast of champions on a day like today.
I received the call from my sister Thursday afternoon saying Daddy was sick and looked terrible. She felt like he needed to get in with someone immediately. I had seen him just a few days earlier on July 4th, just after a fall in the garden, and he had been sore and tired, but seemed okay. He complained about a knot on his shoulder/back which was tender, but assured me that it would “run its course” and he had been through this before. No big deal. Had he really deteriorated so much in a week? I called Mom and Daddy to try to gauge how he was doing. He complained that the knot was hurting even worse, but when I insisted again that they go to the doctor, he assured me again it would eventually run its course.
I know exactly where I get my stubbornness from. I’m totally Daddy’s girl. I guess that’s why I get nominated to talk to him about difficult things, too. We see eye to eye on most things, and we share our passion for what we believe is right. As I continued to talk to Daddy about going to the doctor, I hear my mom start yelling, and then my dad yelling at my mom. It sounded to me like they were yelling at the cat. I waited for the dust to settle before I spoke again and asked what was going on. Mom explained that Daddy had tried to get up to get some ice, and fell into the counter. Then she told me he had fallen again two nights earlier, forcing her to call 9-1-1 to get help getting him up again. I pleaded with Daddy to please let me come and get him and drive him to the doctor. In his frustration from this latest fall, he agreed. I asked about the knot on his shoulder, and he tells me it’s hurting more and more each passing day. I’m concerned that this has become infected, and that this infection is weakening him. Perhaps that’s causing the falling. He tells me he’s not dizzy and his ears aren’t ringing.
We quickly made a plan. I would drive to their home southwest of Booneville (two and a half hours from me), and drive them to their doctor in Ft. Smith (and hour from their house). I would leave around 6:30 or 7 a.m. so we would arrive only an hour or so after the clinic opened. Since I couldn’t sleep, I ended up leaving at 5:45 a.m.
As I was driving, I coordinated with my two sisters what was going on. We made a couple of contingency plans in case Daddy couldn’t (or didn’t want to) be seen by his regular doctor. I connected to itunes on my phone and as the music filled the cabin of my Yukon XL, I thought about what the day would likely lead to. Having recently put my husband’s parents in a nursing home, the reality of aging parents is all too real. In my eyes, though, my Daddy is one of the strongest people I know. It’s hard to imagine him falling and not being able to get up. About an hour out, I call the house and talk to my parents. They had to call 9-1-1 again during the night and get help when Daddy fell in the dining room. I feel an increased sense of urgency, as that makes four falls in seven days.
When I arrived at their house a few minutes after 9 a.m., Mom announced that their PCP’s office can’t get them in that day and suggests that they go to an alternate clinic to see a Physician Assistant (PA). I’m sure the PA is more than qualified, but Daddy’s shoulder is now hurting so much that I’m not interested in having him see anyone but an MD. I tell them about our two backup plans: either we go to Fayetteville through a hospital where we have a connection or we go to Little Rock to the VA. Daddy gives it some consideration for several minutes, and settles on Little Rock. We throw some things in a bag and Mom and I help him get dressed and we hit the road. By 10:10 we’re heading back to Little Rock.
The afternoon was consumed with activity at the ER as they evaluated Daddy, determined they needed to lance the knot on his back and run some tests to ensure the falling isn’t related to any cardiac or potential stroke activity. All the tests were negative, and his brain scan was normal. They loaded Daddy up on morphine and proceeded to numb the area and lance the cyst on his back. I won’t bore you with all the details, but he has now had that cyst removed and cleaned and endured a follow-up visit at the VA ER. It’s hard to believe that something that simple would really have gotten him so sick, but it certainly appears that’s what it was. After a follow-up visit Saturday morning where they cleaned and repacked his wound, they cleared him to go home with daily maintenance. It will likely be a couple of weeks before he feels really well again, but at least he’s on the mend.
Not exactly how I planned on spending my Friday, but I’m glad I’m in a position where I could make the decision to go without having to wait on permission from someone else.
It was sobering sitting with my dad at Cracker Barrel Friday night (he was starving when they finished with him). I was so grateful to see him hungry that I told him we’d go wherever he wanted to go. We tuckered him out on this little adventure, though, and we ended up sitting in rockers outside the restaurant. As he tried to gather his strength so I could take him to my sister’s house to relax for the night, I sat and watched him. This strong man I had shadowed my whole life now sitting weak and frustrated in a rocker. He apologized that I had taken a day off work and done all that driving for him as he should be able to take care of himself. It’s horrible to see these people you’ve idolized your whole life now struggling.
At least, for today, he’s on the mend and we can hopefully conquer this situation. I know that time is coming sooner rather than later where we’ll have more problems, but for today I’m going to try not to think too much about that.


Snickers versus Milky Way

My mother keeps reminding me that I’m going to be old someday, and I won’t be in control of my faculties anymore. I pray that I never reach that point, or that I’m at least nice to my children and my grandchildren when it happens.
My mother-in-law and father-in-law have been in a nursing home since November. It’s been a roller coaster of negative behavior, health scares, and just general torture watching this process. I personally have struggled with whether we have made the correct decisions, while my husband and his sister do battle over every issue which arises. It could be as simple as getting the laundry schedule worked out or as complicated as figuring out why my mother-in-law has fallen out of bed twice in as many weeks.
Sometimes the answers are sad. Sometimes a little comical. We remind ourselves to keep our sense of humor as much as possible, but even that sometimes doesn’t help the struggle much. It seems we argue a lot with the parents about food. They want more of it in their room. They take a dislike to whatever is being served, and want to have their own to prepare. The problem with that is that if there are too many options in their room, they simply won’t eat what’s provided to them by the nursing home. Not only is that not good for their diets, it’s a strain on the pocketbook as we are constantly bringing more and more food. They also can’t ration it out, so either Louis is up there several times a week, or we’re listening to them complain because they’re out of food (or a combination of the two).
Anyway, today’s story starts following a “we need groceries” phone call received just before Easter. Louis patiently takes the list and heads for the grocery story. His dad had asked him while he was there to please pick up a Milky Way for Helen. Louis politely declines citing their diet and the things we know they’ve been eating lately. They’ve managed to convince a couple of their visitors that they don’t get to ever have any treats, so these visitors are constantly bringing candy and cookies to them. Because of that, we’ve had to try to cut those things out in other areas. It’s akin to telling your 4 year old he can’t have a cookie before dinner. If you let him have it, he won’t eat his dinner and so on.
Easter Sunday we take them both out for lunch at Olive Garden. On the way back to the nursing home we stop by Kroger and pick up cookies for the nurses who care for them, and the cafeteria staff who prepare their meals (you know, the ones they don’t want to eat!). I drop Louis off at the door at Kroger and he goes into the make our purchase. As soon as Louis gets inside, his dad asks me to call him and ask him to pick up a package of miniature Milky Way candy bars. I explain that Louis likely isn’t going to do that, given all the sweets that are at the nursing home already. He agrees and lets it go.
A few days later Louis is gathering up groceries to take up to them, and as he’s checking out at Kroger, he spots the tray of Milky Way bars near the register. He reflects on how many times we’ve said “no” recently, grabs one and tosses it into the cart. He is pretty pleased at knowing he will have made her happy and done something nice.
As he enters the nursing home, he locates the candy bar so that it’s handy when he walks into the room. As soon as he arrives, he presents her proudly with this Milky Way for which she has waited so long. She looks at him and snaps “I like Snickers!”
And so it goes when you are trying to please an elderly person sometimes.
As I’m relaying this story to one of my dear friends earlier, she muses that Snickers are full of nuts. It occurs to me that this is rather symbolic of this entire situation. Nutty, bumpy, not nearly as easy to navigate as a Milky Way with its creamy, gooey center.
Maybe the universe is sending us a message. . .

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Vacation with the parents

You all see me post generally about my in-laws when I refer to parents, but today’s story is about my parents. We took them to Europe last summer, and it was epic. We took a 12 day cruise, spent a few days in Barcelona (where my mother was born), saw parts of Italy and France and Portugal, and then spent two days in London and three more days in and around Brussels, Belgium. It was the trip of the lifetime, and it was awesome to hear their stories and see the places that meant something to them when they first met. Louis and I talk often about that trip, and how it teleported them back in time, and we were blessed to be along for the ride. We were even more blessed that the boys got to see that side of them, and got to experience so many things with their grandparents. I doubt they’ll ever forget that trip.

One of the days we were in Brussels, my dad had wanted to drive us to Mons. This is where he was stationed and where he and Mom lived before coming back stateside. He had talked me into renting a van and had decided he was driving us to Mons for the day. We were excited to see Waterloo was on the way, and we made a quick side-trip there (because you just CAN’T pass up Waterloo). My dad had never seen it either, despite driving the route from Mons to Belgium regularly. It wasn’t much, really–just a gigantic hill in the middle of a field with a lion on top. It was neat to see, but it was 275 steps straight up (and then down again) and we all stared off in the distance in amazement at field after field of crops. I don’t know what I thought I was going to see, but it was not that. We had a little hiccup with the directions in and a road detour as well, which yielded us a visit with a very displeased set of cops who were speaking French so fast it would make your head spin. Mom was interpreting from the back seat as Daddy and I looked at each other periodically, completely bewildered. After finally getting our directions straight and getting on the correct road, we climbed our 275 steps and examined the lion, and then continued our trip to Mons.

My dad was a little disappointed when we first got to Mons. It didn’t look like he had remembered (of course, that’s been over 40 years now), and he was a little perplexed that he couldn’t figure out quite where we should go. It was remarkable, though, when he his a street he recognized. He knew exactly where to go then, and drove us to the street near the train station where he and Mom lived. He remembered every place they used to eat and where they shopped from there. He was filling us in as we drove down the streets. We were discussing how it was getting onto lunch time and we should probably think about where to eat. And then it happened. He spotted a little restaurant around the corner and he suddenly teleported back in time 40 years. He sounded like a young boy as he talked fast and looked for a parking place. He expertly maneuvered the van into a parking spot across the street and announced as he pointed “THERE’s where we’re going to eat.” Louis and I both were chuckling at this, because Daddy doesn’t usually decide–he just goes with the flow. He’ll be happy almost anywhere, and he’ll eat almost anything. To see him so visibly excited over something the rest of us hadn’t even spotted yet was really funny to watch.

What he had spotted where these little sausages he used to eat. He marched right up to the counter and ordered, and then sat down outside with us with great pride when they presented him his plate. I had been avoiding the meat in Europe–none of it tasted quite right to me, but when he gave me a bite of sausage, I had to go get one. It was SO good! He was explaining that this is what he used to eat a lot when he first moved to the area, and that’s what he had spotted when we were driving along. To see such excitement in him was marvelous. It made me reaffirm my promise to myself that I’m going to do my best to make sure they get to experience everything they want. I don’t want to watch them slip like we have my in-laws, and I think that trip was a good way for them to see that they could still travel. We slowed our pace a bit for them, and tried to situate our trips so there wasn’t much walking, but otherwise they did great. I think it showed them that we didn’t mind traveling with them (they were afraid we’d never want to do it again), and it showed us that with a few minor tweaks we could pull off a great trip that suited everyone.

Spring break is in about a month. We were invited by a couple of our friends to go to Gatlinburg, TN, which is one of our favorite places to visit. There’s something there for everyone. We’ve tried a couple of times to get Mom and Daddy to go with us, but they’ve always declined (probably because they thought we wouldn’t want to travel with them or they would hold us up). Plus, Daddy likes to stay in a place for a day or two and then see a new place. With me booking a condo, we were going to be in one place for several days. When I asked my mom, it was obvious she wanted to go, but she wasn’t sure Daddy would go for it. She was going to ask him when he got home and then they would call me back. I was headed to an appointment, and told her I’d be home that night or the next day. We were in a one bedroom condo, but we had figured out how we could share it with them if they wanted to go.

By the time I got out of my appointment, my dad was already calling me back. They had talked to another couple they like to travel with, and Daddy asked me to find a condo for the four of them. He sounded so excited when I called to get his credit card number to book it. We were able to get them in just down the street from us. I’ve been working on our plans and how we’ll drive over and what we’ll do while we’re there. I can’t wait to take them on another trip. The couple they’re bringing has never been to that part of the country, either, so it will be neat to show everyone this area that we love so much. I love doing things with them that bring energy back for them and help them enjoy life. I really love that they can enjoy these experiences with their grandchildren, and that Luke and Brennan get to have so much fun with their grandparents. I hope to get to travel with my grandchildren like that one day.

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Tuck and Roll

My mother-in-law is a Type 2 Diabetic. She loves sweets. You can probably already see where this is headed.

Since moving them to a nursing home almost two months ago, we have been pleased to see a tremendous improvement in the diet of both parents, as they rarely leave their room and are eating only what’s provided by the nursing home and by us when we come and visit. We’ve also been pleased to see that they’re walking around the floor before and after their meals, so we’re seeing them get some more exercise. My father-in-law has been encouraged by feeling better, and is prompting this new-found exercise habit. My mother-in-law isn’t quite so excited, but since he goes, so does she.

The adjustment to this nursing home environment has been difficult in a variety of ways, but the most challenging for my mother-in-law was certainly this lack of sweets. Cookies and candy are her personal favorites, but the thing she loves the most is ice cream. When she’s looking for a treat, she asks us to bring her ice cream. We’ve had to make some changes to what they’re allowed to keep in their room, because we discovered as they were growing more comfortable with us bringing them food, they were eating more and more of it. This put us in the position of having to ration the amount of food we were bringing into the facility.

This new rationing means that my mother-in-law is very protective of her cookies. Apparently the cookies is how my father-in-law is getting her to walk around the floor. According to the floor nurse, they see my mother-in-law pushing her walker, and stopping every few feet to nibble on her cookie. We find this entertaining for a couple of reasons: first, she will tell you she can’t do anything with her arm and can’t normally even raise it to her mouth (except to eat her cookie), second, they remark that she moves as a pretty good clip around the floor, especially when she’s getting close to the room on a lap (where she’ll get a second cookie for lap number 2).

Right after Christmas, we were sitting in the movie theater with our kids when Louis realizes his cell phone is ringing. His dad calls us regularly, so when he saw the number he just sent it to voice mail and we finished the movie. As we’re leaving the theater, he realizes the nursing home has called a couple of times too. Upon calling and checking in with the floor nurse, we found out that another resident had seen my mother-in-law walking the floor, approached her, and simply yanked her walker out from under her. The nurses were at the nursing station when it happened right in front of them. They were amazed that it happened in the first place, but how my mother-in-law handled it was the most shocking.

This woman, who can barely walk, cannot use one arm at all and can barely use the other, tucked and rolled when her walker was yanked out from under her. Not only did she tuck and roll, she held her cookie high up in the air so it wouldn’t hit the ground or be dropped. They couldn’t believe it and both of them said they wouldn’t have believed it if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes. She rolled and bounced back up and the first words out of her mouth were “I’m fine! Don’t call my son!”

We’ve laughed and laughed at her being worried we were going to bust her out with her cookie in the hallway. I guess she figured we wouldn’t let her have ANY cookies anymore after that. I know you’re wondering: the other resident was sent away for additional mental evaluation. My mother-in-law is fine, although sore the next day after her tumble. We were musing at how we didn’t figure out the cookie solution before now.

So, when you feel like you just can’t go on, or you’re not sure you have the energy to accomplish your task, maybe you just need a cookie. . .

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Elderly habits

As we age we have, ahem, issues with our bodily functions. Sometimes easier than others, these challenges are even more interesting when they impact your children. As one of the children who is dealing with the needs of some elderly adults, we have learned to try and focus on keeping our sense of humor. Sometimes that doesn’t work so well, but others. . . well, it just gets plain funny sometimes.

Last weekend we receive a phone call, requesting a pair of scissors. With the parents in a nursing home, this becomes concerning. They’re not real hip on the residents having sharp objects in their room, as some of the other residents are mentally unstable. Now, Louis doesn’t usually ask questions when he receives these calls–he just evaluates if it’s a request he can accommodate and then complies. I guess I’m either more curious or more suspicious, but I couldn’t imagine what in the world they might need with a pair of scissors (not to mention the fact that anything they need to cut, the nurse could cut for them). When I present my concerns with the request, he begins to ask more questions.

My mother-in-law has a continence problem, as do many women her age. That’s not surprising, and certainly nothing for her to be ashamed about. The surprising part has been how difficult it is to buy products to assist her with this issue which please her. There is something wrong with everything I buy, I swear! Even when it’s exactly what she told me to buy. So, apparently the last package of pads I bought her were too much, and my father-in-law decided he was going to “cut” them. I can’t even begin to explain how I’m envisioning this in my mind and I’m sure with my mouth agape as my husband is attempting to explain this to me. I am imagining that he’s going to cut a couple of inches off it, and trying to fathom how the measurements of this feat will be accomplished (yeah, I didn’t want to think about it either!). I’m telling Louis that his is a bad idea on so many levels that I can’t even decide how we should combat it.

We go to Wal-Mart later in the afternoon and pick up another package of the pads she requested, careful to purchase the appropriate size and absorbency. As I go on to work, Louis goes by to see them, drops off the things we picked up for them, and explains why they can’t have scissors at the nursing home. Pretty normal afternoon, by all accounts. As Louis and I leave the office heading home, I go to throw my coat in the back seat and see a Wal-Mart bag with pads in it. I accuse Louis of forgetting to give them to his mother, and he clarifies that those are the ones that weren’t “right.” I pick up the bag and realize that they’re exactly the same, only lower absorbency (which ultimately makes them thinner). Louis explains that this was the problem–not the length.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re imagining again that he wanted to cut on these to make them “right.” Again, if you’re like me, you’re trying to imagine what in the world he was planning on cutting. The lesson for this week? Sometimes, when you’re in a nursing home and don’t have anything more productive to do, it’s just about not having enough to do and imagining how you can solve whatever problem presented to you at the moment.

Just this week, they’ve also sent us on the hunt for cough drops that don’t exist, and an adventure with mattress pads for their beds. I think it’s rather like having a toddler that teaches you to “fetch” his toys for him. At least that helps it not seem quite so insane when we go on one of these little missions.

I can’t wait to see what they dream up next. . .

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Brush and Stumps

I would like to say that I still enjoy Thanksgiving with all the enthusiasm I had as a child, but it just isn’t there anymore. It’s nice to have a couple of days off, and see everyone, but it’s so much hustle and bustle that it’s hard to really enjoy it. I have never been able to just eat turkey and kick back and nap all afternoon. We’re usually inhaling our lunch and then preparing to hit the road again home, which is exactly what we did this year. So, not the typical Thanksgiving by most people’s terms, but still plenty to exercise our thanks.

We left Little Rock at 7 a.m., planning on being in Booneville by 9:30, and at my parents’ by 10. My younger sister, Joan, and her husband were already at my parents’ house, and when I arrived my sister and I set about preparing our pieces of the meal. My dad had decided to smoke the turkey this year with the new smoker we bought him for Father’s Day, and mom made a spiral cut ham for me (I’m not a huge fan of turkey). Mom’s specialty is a meal we’ve come to call “brush and stumps.” Now, you’re no doubt wondering about the name. When my little sister was very young, mom made this concoction of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and cheese for the first time and my sister marveled at how the broccoli and cauliflower looked like “brush and stumps.” The name stuck, and everyone who has ever been introduced to my family and been the recipient of this particular dish requests it at future family gatherings. It’s a must-have at the holiday table.

I should take a moment and explain that my parents live 30 minutes from town. Usually, though, they do their grocery shopping in nearby Ft. Smith, which is an hour away. As anyone in a small town can tell you, you usually try to buy your groceries in a larger, less expensive town. For this reason, and considering the distance they are to even Booneville, we learned very long ago that you either did without, or you become quite resourceful should you forget to purchase something.

As Joan prepares the vegetables for the big dish and we’re just a few minutes away from needing to add the cheese sauce, we realize that the usual block of Velveeta mom almost always (note the “almost”) has in the fridge is not there. We search the second fridge, the pantry, and anywhere else we think the cheese might have ended up. Finally, I ask my dad. Daddy did the grocery shopping that particular week, and doesn’t recall buying any cheese. Regardless, he proceeds into the kitchen to help take up the search. My sister and I are exchanging troubled glances across the kitchen as my mom suggests we use the small block of cheddar in the fridge. First, it’s too small, and second—ughh. This particular dish has always had American cheese. Now, I know you’re probably like my husband, and you’re arguing that Velveeta isn’t actually “American cheese,” but you get the point.

Daddy, ever the resourceful farmer, realizes that there IS Velveeta in the fridge! There are at least, oh, about 24 slices of it! Problem solved, right? My sister and I again are exchanging glances across the kitchen. Mom suggests mixing that with the cheddar–surely that will be enough. I chuckle a bit to myself and catch my husband’s eye from the end of the dining room. He’s getting nervous. This is going to be some kind of crazy modification to his beloved brush and stumps, and he doesn’t have the heart to say he doesn’t like something my mom has made. Plus, I’m probably the only one in the house who could care less, because I’m the only one that doesn’t eat broccoli, or cauliflower nor carrots that taste like broccoli or cauliflower.

Good thing for us that Joan is an excellent cook. I’m apparently the only daughter that missed the cooking gene in our family, because they’re all good cooks but me. Joan is one of those people, like my mom, who can open the pantry, see 12 ingredients, and whip up a casserole. Joan spots the box of shells and cheese (also Velveeta, by the way), that my mom had bought for Brennan, and an idea strikes. The next thing I know, I’m stationed at the stove and, at her direction, I’m stirring the cheese packets, now mixed with the cheese slices, into a wonderful creamy sauce.

As I was exchanging texts with various friends that day who were encountering their own family craziness, everyone who knows my parents very much enjoyed the story of all of us standing in the kitchen, contemplating how to make this cheese sauce, and ultimately settling for ready-made cheese sauce in the shells and cheese box.

Those are the things that make the holidays memorable. Those will be the stories we’ll appreciate trading back and forth again years from now, as we’re seated around the table for some other family occasion. I would never have believed it, but my husband and my sister both assert that it’s one of the better batches of cheese sauce ever created for brush and stumps. We may have stumbled on a new family tradition. . .

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The second move

My in-laws were moved into a nursing home the second week of November. We moved Helen on Wednesday, and transferred Paul from the rehab facility where he had been recovering into the nursing home on Thursday. He would be able to continue his rehab services and be with my mother-in-law, so it was the best of both worlds. My husband and I live in the same town as them, so it naturally falls to us when they have immediate needs. Louis and I had moved Helen’s lift chair, TV and three days of clothes, medicines, and anything else she managed to chunk into a trash bag that evening. I was amused when I was settling in her items that night at the choices she had made, from empty jewelry boxes to multiple boxes of Kleenex. Ultimately, though, the move-in went pretty smoothly and we reassured her several times that we would be back over the weekend with the remainder of her clothes and items.

We went by Thursday night to be sure Paul had settled in, and I took his clothes (which no one thought to pack Wednesday night), so he would have them when he was ready. He was bed-bound at that point, and wasn’t feeling well when we arrived. We were a little unnerved, but reminded ourselves that he had been through a lot, and the move that day was probably not helping. He seemed grateful to be with Helen, and as he drifted in and out of sleep, we told him we would be back over the weekend.

Kathryn, my sister-in-law, has made trips down every weekend to help us complete the move. Kathryn is only able to come after she gets off work on Saturday, so that really only left us Sunday morning to do anything we needed and get Kathryn back home in time for work on Monday. After we made a pass through the apartment, we decided the most logical approach was to divide the clothes into piles we knew we would/should take, things we would/should donate, and things we needed to take and ask about, knowing we were likely taking them back home with us. In addition, we had to label everything in the room, except their clothes. We were fortunate to have the laundry worker at the nursing home willing to do that for us. Regardless, there was a TON of other stuff to label, all the way down to their toothbrushes. Helen, being incapacitated somewhat (we haven’t officially diagnosed her, but suspect some onset of Alzheimer’s/Dementia, etc.), wants to know everything we’re doing. She asks us 50 questions about everything. She grows annoyed if she sees Kathryn and me talking and she can’t hear. She is obsessed with knowing every little detail, and wants to have input into every conversation. Then she gets irritated if you’re discussing something she doesn’t understand, and she huffs about not understanding.

Needless to say, conversations like that are long and very frustrating. It’s hard to make someone understand you’re not talking about them. It’s hard to make them understand that you’re following the rules and it has to be one way or another. It’s hard to sit and listen to remarks about how much they miss their home and how they wish they were still there. It’s hardest to remember that these people don’t mean to hurt your feelings (usually, anyway), and that it doesn’t occur to them all the effort you’ve put into placing them here and how hard you’ve worked to get them in the best facility which meets all their wishes.

As Kathryn and I exchange glances with each one of these comments, we set about trying to make it a little more entertaining. From remarks about what needed to go into the closet: “Here, let ME do that. I know you’re not even tall enough to see the shelf, let alone get anything up there.” to the shoe rack when I said “my shoes won’t both fit in each of those little slots–I have to put one shoe in each” to which my sister-in-law remarked “well, that’s because you’re a Sasquatch!” as we roared with laughter at our cleverness, we gradually lightened the mood in the room and were able to accomplish our task. By the end of the afternoon, Louis had set up both (yes, both) TVs for both of them and programmed everything electronic we had brought. Kathryn and I had everything put away and had even labeled the drawers to make it easier to follow when searching for clothes. We were pretty proud of ourselves.

As I watched Kathryn drive away that afternoon and prepared to head back to the facility to finish the last few items, I thought about how far we’ve come in this whole thing. We’ve gone from nearly losing Paul the first few days of November, to now having him at a facility where he could receive rehab and have them together. I’d started conversations with an Eldercare lawyer and trying to figure out what to do next, and we were preparing to move their things out of their apartment. A lot was finished. We still had several things to do, but I could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, the move out of the apartment was going to be an adventure all its own.

One of the nurses suggested that I write a book about this and the lessons learned and the stories. I watch her in complete amazement as she handles the elderly people in her charge. The compassion and patience she displays is truly inspiring. Nothing rocks her and she moves from issue to issue without irritation. She pats on a person’s arm and says sweetly but firmly what she needs. She says that someday soon we will be the same way–it just takes time. I have a hard time seeing that right now, but I sure hope she’s right.

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