My mother-in-law, Edna, is 85 years old, weighs about a hundred pounds, is half blind and gets around with a walker. Until this year she could still take care of herself and her home, located a couple blocks from the Annapolis, Maryland harbor. Even though she could barely walk, she would drag herself up and down a steep staircase several times a day to get between her bedroom and her daytime seat at the kitchen table, where she would read the Washington Post, her mail, and the many magazines she subscribed to.
But a couple years ago, Edna started showing signs of the beginnings of dementia. Since then, her short term memory has been steadily getting worse, along with her ability to make decisions and manage her daily life. My wife’s brother, who lives about an hour away, had put her on the waiting list for an assisted living facility near his home two years ago, but each time a room became available Edna would have an excuse why she couldn’t possibly leave just now, such as, “I just want to stay long enough to see the lilacs bloom.” Finally, my wife and I came up in July to try to reason with her and convince her that she needed to move, and even took her down to tour the facility, which is small and homey, without any institutional smells or feeling, and with a caring and friendly staff. Needless to say, she was not impressed.
During that visit we discovered that her bills were going unpaid, there was rotten food in the refrigerator, and when I cleaned out her pantry I discovered swollen cans, jars with black mold inside, and products dating back at least 20 years. Edna would ask the same questions over and over, until we got so exasperated we would have to turn the conversation to questions about her life in the 60’s, about which her memory is very sharp. When it was time to go, we drove back to Nashville knowing she was no longer competent to take care of herself, but we didn’t feel we could force her to move when she was so adamantly against it.
My wife continued to call Edna every day, and it was clear that she was getting worse. The guys that ran the B&B next door told us they were bringing her food and driving her to the dentist. She had apparently lost her dental bridge down the sink disposal. In late August, we got the call that there was another opening at the assisted living place, and we made the decision to go up there and make her move any way we could.
The night we arrived we told her that she had dementia and that she was no longer capable of managing her own affairs. When she protested, we confronted her with the evidence that she could not hold new information for more than a few minutes, and told her about all the other things that had been happening. Finally she was convinced she needed help, and was inconsolably sad and shocked that she hadn’t been able to see her own deterioration.
This would set the pattern for the days to follow, as each day was brand new to her and she would have forgotten her realization until we would confront her again, and she would get back on the roller coaster of depression. Each morning my wife would remind her that we were moving in five days, and she would say, “I’m not moving! I’m perfectly fine here!” Even when we could convince her she had to go, she would say over and over, “I can’t leave my home…” One morning I found a note she had written to herself that said, “Moving…just a fantasy?”
We did some forensic accounting and got the numbers together for last year’s taxes that she had been unable to do. My wife began the job of changing her address so that the bills would go to her brother’s, and her income would go to one bank account to pay for her care at the assisted living facility. Fortunately, she had several income streams from pensions, benefits and social security, so paying for the considerable bill would not be a problem. The night before we would leave to take her to her new home, I went out and picked up her favorite treat, barbequed ribs, and then played several games of Scrabble. (She won.)
Friday morning we managed to get her overnight bag packed and her into the car by telling her we were going to visit her son and daughter-in-law. We dropped her off there and returned to Annapolis to pack the furniture and clothes that would be going with her to assisted living. That evening we emptied drawers, packed books and pictures and cleaned years of dust off the backs of the bedroom furniture. A couple of guys that my sister-in-law had hired to move the big stuff showed up around 9 Saturday morning, and they spent an hour in the humid air going up and down the staircase with the things we had determined would fit in the motel room-sized apartment that would be Edna’s new home.
By the time we got down to Southern Maryland and had carried the furniture and boxes up to room 213, it was early afternoon, and we hurried to get stuff set up before Edna arrived. Unfortunately, with a giant stack of boxes still sitting in the middle of the room, we got word that she was there. The staff gathered along with other residents who were downstairs, and applauded and cheered as she slowly made her way in, gripping her walker and looking chagrined. Edna came up to the room briefly and sat there with a sad look until the facility director came and cajoled her away with a promise of ice cream. With her gone, we were able to unpack with the help of her son and his wife, using photos I had taken of her dressing table top and drawers to arrange her things exactly how they had been. I discovered I had forgotten to pack the few pieces of artwork we had decided to bring, so we made a plan to return on Monday with those things and say our final goodbye before closing the house and heading home.
Monday when we arrived in late morning, Edna was still in her bedclothes lying on the bed. She had been used to staying up late and sleeping sometimes until early afternoon, so apparently it was going to be difficult for a while to get her up for breakfast. While my wife tried to get Edna going, I went down to the “library’ and read magazines for an hour or so. Right before lunch, she emerged and we sat out on the front porch and said our goodbyes, Edna continuing to insist that she had made a mistake and wanted to return home, with my wife gently reminding her that it was no longer possible for her to do that. Then it was lunchtime, and we got in the van and drove back to Annapolis.
Now it is almost a year later. Edna has gotten into the routine at the retirement facility, from what we hear from my wife’s sister-in-law, and from Edna in our frequent phone conversations. She is participating in the games and bingo sessions, and making it to lunch and dinner, though she rarely remembers what she did during the day when we talk. She continues to ask when she can go back home, and my wife has to have a lot of patience during calls when she has to repeat the same information about me or the kids over and over. And yesterday Edna was apparently distraught over a missing purse, one that we had thrown out during our visit because it was so worn.
I guess in her mind she had just been using it, and now it was gone.