Thursday, May 10, 2012

Happy Mother's Day, Alzheimer's and all

Mother's Day used to mean driving to Seattle and spending Sunday with Mom and Grandma (a little like we did last year), or buying annuals and planting hanging baskets for the patio. The rhododendron under my old bedroom window and the flowering snowball tree in the backyard were both Mother's Day gifts to Mom from my dad. Gift giving, gardening, handmade cards and coupons for chores all come to mind. But this year will be different.

This is the first spring Mom has been in a nursing home. I don't think days of the week, months, or even years register for her anymore. I suspect her sense of time is very immediate. That's a blessing and a curse. She's always happy to visit with family members. But within an hour, she's forgotten who was with her and what was said. As a result, spending time with her feels holy. Those moments spent together exist for her as they happen, not in anticipation and not in memories. Just in the moment. It's beautiful and crushing at the same time.

I visited Mom on Sunday. I've got a routine. At the front reception area of the nursing home, I sign in (Name, Who I am Visiting, Time In, Time Out). It's 84 steps to her wing (I counted). Down the long main hall, there are lots of open bedroom doors with TVs blaring inside. At the nurse's station I usually see a couple of employees busy at computers or visiting. A few residents in wheel chairs park along the hallway and watch everyone's coming and going. There's always beeping, like loud alarm clocks that everyone else has tuned out. It's nerve wracking. At the 84th step, I reach the Special Care Unit, specifically for Alzheimer's and dementia care. I press a button to disarm the door and enter (quickly; if the door is left open too long, it sets off an alarm that sounds like a bank's been robbed).

The Special Care Unit is always a few degrees warmer than the rest of the building. It smells ripe like slept-in bedding and unwashed clothes. There is art on the wall in the hallway and photos of the residents outside their doors. There are two and three-person rooms on either side. I usually find Mom in either the activity room or the "quiet" room set up for visiting families.

She was finishing her lunch when I arrived on Sunday. In the small dining room at the end of the hall, the other residents looked like white haired, passive zombies. They shifted their weight awkwardly in their seats and stared. I heard guttural noises and saw pale limbs exposed by ill-fitting sweat pants and hospital robes. I smiled big and waited for Mom to see me. She giggled and fidgeted with her long terry cloth bib. As I sat down next to her, she carefully maneuvered her large-handled spoon from the plastic dish to her mouth. The nurse assigned to meal duty handed her a sippy cup of milk and Mom drank thirstily.

Vegetables (cooked so soft that they barely held together) tumbled off the spoon into her lap. I ignored them and watched Mom take another bite. She enjoyed every mouthful with lots of satisfied sighing and "Mm!"s, but she seemed self conscious and said I should eat something, too. I smiled but declined and praised her on the good job cleaning her plate. The nurse said, "Vicki's my good eater."

Without missing a beat Mom added, "You know me!"

She slurped the last of the milk from her sippy cup, laughed at herself and apologized.

I helped her out of her chair so we could take a walk. It took twice as many steps for me to lead her out of the special care unit and back to the front entrance due to her tiny steps and slow pace. I bantered with her the whole way. She was in good spirits (as usual) and laughed a lot.

We sat on a bench near the front entrance in the sunshine. We admired the garden (azaleas, tulips, blue bells all in full bloom) and the fountain alongside the parking lot. The fresh air was sweet, especially after the "lived in" smell of the nursing home. I loaned Mom my sunglasses and put my arm around her. She leaned into me for a nuzzle. I quietly sang a few songs and she hummed along with me, instinctively remembering every note.

"I love you," I said, and kissed her forehead.

"I love you, too."

Those words mean more to me than I could ever express with flowers, jewelry, chocolate, or Hallmark cards.

This Mother's Day will be different than all the rest, but the love and appreciation directed toward Mom hasn't changed. If anything, it's been distilled and purified.

To all the mothers in my life, you are treasured.


  1. Your first MOthers Day in a nursing home, my first Mothers day to the cemetery.
    I thought my Mom was young (she died in Feb at age 72) but your Mom is younger.
    Horrible, rotten, mean disease.

  2. Thanks, Sweetheart. This is hard for all of us but your words make me feel better. Love ya, Dad.

  3. Your mom-posts just gut me, Emily... Brutal and beautiful all at once. Sending hugs and gratitude to you from AK.