JoAnne Lehman

JoAnne Lehman
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
January 18
I'm a middle-aged writer and editor living in Madison, Wisconsin with my life partner, our adolescent goddaughter, a standard poodle, two cats, and some chickens. I'm a long-distance caregiver -- but not primary caregiver -- for my parents, who recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and who still live in their own home even though both have dementia. One of my brothers now lives with them and manages their care, which is substantial. The other three of us siblings rotate in for a week or so at a time, three or four times a year each. My parents are sweet and delightful, even as their needs increase and life with/around them becomes more stressful and challenging.


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JULY 13, 2011 2:09PM

Like I Said (A Dementia Vignette)

Rate: 9 Flag

A tiny piece of memoir about helping my elderly parents get ready for a road trip in July 2009.

             “I thought I would take Mom shopping today,” I tell Dad at the patio table, with a glance over at Mom to include her in the conversation, “for some clothes.”

            Dad nods. He’s taking a break from picking his raspberries in the sun. I’ve urged a glass of Gatorade on him. I’m afraid he’s going to have heat stroke one of these days.

            “Do I need new clothes?” Mom looks down at her gray corduroy pants. Her polyester top is pilled. The garish flowers have faded over the years, but they still hide spots. I suspect she doesn’t notice the little black marks on the knee of her pants. I wonder what caused them — ink? But how?

            “For your trip to Florida,” I tell her. “I thought it would be good for you to have some lighter, cotton things. It’ll be very hot there.”

            “Oh, am I going to Florida?”

            “Yes, honey,” my father says. “We’re going. For the Brechbill reunion. Your family.”

            “How are we getting there?”

            “John’s going to drive you,” I say. “In your car — the Cadillac.”

            “When is that?” Dad asks. “When do we leave? Next week?”

            Dad’s not so good with far-ahead plans anymore. “No, in two weeks,” I say. “You’re leaving on the 22nd.”

            “Well, we’d better get it on the calendar!” This from Mom.

            “Yes, it’s there already,” I say.

            “Who’s driving us to Florida?”

            “John is,” I say again. “John’s driving you.”

            “Oh, good,” she says with relief. “Because we really can’t make a trip like that by ourselves anymore.”

            You bet you can’t.

            “Do you two feel O.K. about going to Florida?” I ask. “Do you want to go?”

            “Oh, sure!” They both  nod. “As long as it’s John driving,” she adds.

            “So. Later today, Mom and I will go to Kohl’s. How are you set for clothes, Dad? Do you need anything?”

            He shakes his head. “Nope.”

            “You’ve got plenty of socks and underwear?”

            “Yup.” He takes his last sip of Gatorade. “And I’ve got my tan pants.”

            I feebly joke with him. “Do you need some plaid shorts?” I’m imagining old men vacationing in the south.

            “Shorts,” he says, not joking. “I guess I could use some shorts.”

            “Well, O.K. then!” I turn to Mom conspiratorially. “Shopping for men is so easy, isn’t it? There’s a waist measurement and, for shirts, a neck measurement, and that’s it! Not like women’s clothes, where there doesn’t seem to be any standard system at all for sizes!” I turn back to Dad. “I’ll pick something out for you. What’s your waist size?” He’s tiny. They both seem to have shrunk in their 80s.


            “No way!”

            “Yup. I’ve always been a thirty-six.”

            “Dad! You can’t possibly be that big around!”

            “I am!” he insists.

            I check the tag in the favored tan pants later, before I leave for the store. Thirty-four. And I suspect they’re baggy on him. He always wears a belt.

            Mom, it turns out, doesn’t actually want to go shopping. I’m not surprised. She’s relieved that I don’t insist, even though I let her stay home from day care today ostensibly to go on this outing with me.

            It’s easier for me anyway. I sweep through the many women’s sections at Kohl’s, all grouped by designer, gathering armfuls of pants, tops, and sports bras in various sizes, trying to imagine them on Mom. At the last minute she asked me to “pick up” a bra for her. She hasn’t worn one in years, preferring less-binding cotton undershirts. But she’s worried that she will look too saggy in her new clothes. Sports bras are stretchy and come in small, medium, large, and extra-large; I figure that’s the best way to go, although I’m not sure Danskin developed its styles with hunched-over 89-year-olds in mind. Everything in the store is on sale.

            Then, a very quick stop in Men’s. There’s much less to choose from — that’s refreshing. I pick up the first short-sleeved shirt I see in Medium, a gorgeous, all-cotton, dark blue plaid that comes with a coordinating T-shirt at no extra cost. There are two styles of shorts that I deem appropriate for my 90-year-old father; both have front pleats, and neither is plaid, thank goodness. Yes, there are 34s. There’s even a 33, which I’m tempted to get, because I suspect the beloved pants at home are too big. But I go with 34.

            “We’re going to have a try-on-athon!” I announce after dinner.

            “Oh?” my mother asks. “What’s that all about?”

            “I bought you both some new clothes,” I explain, “for your Florida trip.” We go over the essential facts again. Reunion. In two weeks. John driving.

            I send Dad into his room first, with his one outfit. Ten minutes later he hobbles out wearing it. The tails of the shirt are hanging out.

            “Well, the shirt is O.K.,” he says, looking down at it. I can’t tell whether this is an enthusiastic endorsement or not. I think it fits fine, and the colors look great on him.

            He lifts the shirt tails to show the waist of the tan shorts. Perfect fit. Classy. He’ll look great in Florida.

            But he says the shorts are too small. “I need a bigger size.”

            “Really? They look fine to me. But if you feel they’re too snug, I’ll exchange them for a 36.”

            “Why didn’t you just get me 36 in the first place,” he asks, “like I said?”

            One pair of loose cotton pants fits Mom. She likes one of the sports bras, but even in size Large it feels too tight and she has trouble pulling it over her head. And the Danskin T-shirt in Large is cut too close for an 89-year-old with saggy breasts and osteoporosis. The knee-length Gloria Vanderbilt shorts are just wrong, no matter what the size.

            I’m in luck at Kohl’s the next day. I return six items for credit on my VISA card, and then, in no time, find an X-Large Champion Double-Dry bra, and an X-Large Danskin shirt in a blue that she’ll like even better than the peach I returned. Over in Men’s, I pick up the pleated tan shorts in 36.

            Back at the house, I’m showing Mom and Dad what good luck I had. She suddenly asks, “Are you going to Florida with us?”

            No, I’m sorry. I just can’t.

            “Well, when are we going?”

            In two weeks. John is driving you.

            “But you’re not going? Oh, how I wish you were coming with us!”

            I know.

            “I feel so selfish! You’re doing all this work to help us get ready, and you won’t even get to go!”

            It’ll be O.K., Mom. I’m here right now. I put my arm around her shoulders.

            It’s my last night at their house. I have to leave them here in Pennsylvania and go back to Wisconsin, to my life, my house, my job, my partner. I’m making lists for their Florida trip — lists for them and lists for John, the brother who will finish up the packing and drive them to the reunion. I’m stacking clean clothes on a chair in the guest room — just out of Mom’s everyday view so she doesn’t get too confused ahead of time, but easy for my brother to find when it’s time to pack.

            I make Dad try on the new size, just to be sure. Ten minutes later, he shuffles into the living room, the size 36 shorts cinched in and held up by a belt. They’re so baggy he looks like a member of Spanky’s Gang.

            “These are too big!” He shakes his head.

            I promise to take them back in the morning before I leave town, and get the 34s again. He admits that those had actually fit.

            “Like I said,” he’s telling my mother as I leave the room, “I’ve always been a thirty-four!”

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I know this is self-serving, but I'm going to take the risk and post the first comment to my own blog, in hope of attracting more readers...somehow. -- Hey, here's an update: The post above was written two years ago, in 2009. I just got back from my latest visit with my parents, who have continued to decline -- my father more dramatically than my mother -- yet are still living in their own home, although my brother is now living with them. They celebrated their 70th anniversary while I was there; we had a crowd of friends and relatives over to the house and it was lovely. The upside of dementia is that the party was a surprise -- again and again and again -- even though they'd heard about it numerous times. The latest rumor is that my brother is going to take them to the 2011 reunion in a few days! This time it's in Maryland, a much shorter trip -- but, wow. I wouldn't do it, but more power to him if he can pull it off. Mom just turned 91 and Dad will be 92 in a few weeks.
Good work and wonderful writing, JoAnne! An excellent first post. I look forward to reading more.
I can only hope that, if I ever find myself in this situation, I will approach it with as much grace and good humor as you illustrate here. You have a wonderful family.
Thank you for reading, Jeanette. I just went and read your "fix OS!" post and rated it -- and I note sadly that it was written many weeks ago and that the problems still exist. I'll want to be following your blog, though -- I didn't have time to read much right now, but your posts look fascinating.
Thanks, JoAnne. And congrats on the EP!
Quite touching. So beautiful, without descending into anything too maudlin. Reminds me of what we went through with my stepfather when dementia hit him, although his trip through that chapter was very brief.

I grew up in Milwaukee and am always glad to see writers from Wisconsin. Thanks.
Mary, thank you so much. My parents are a huge focus of my life right now, have been for the past five years and I won't be surprised if they manage to be with us another five (but who knows, of course). I don't think I ever could have imagined that things would be happening in quite the way they are. I'm much more involved than I thought at one time I would be -- yet a lot less than I once feared, back when I still had a lot to work through for myself about them. They live 800 miles away from me, and I see them for about a week every 3 months... it's all I can manage. I miss them, and I cherish the time I get to spend being present with them... and yet, when I get back on the plane to come home at the end of a week, I sometimes feel like I couldn't have managed one more hour... even as I get teary-eyed out of sadness that I can't stay another week.
Patient and loving (and yes--vignette is the perfect word), with just the right dollop of humor for sanity. Thank you for the update too.
This has been my life with mom for the past 12 years.It gets harder each year. I've written quite a few posts about it here and it helps to share the situation. I totally get it.
Watching ones parents decline has to be one of the hardest things in the world. I have just begun experiencing the role reversal with my mother and my older half brother describes a similar problem with my father.

I thought you did quite well giving a fine example of what it is like dealing with a person with demetia. For three years I worked in a nursing home and dealt with similar experiences on a regular basis. There were definately days when I was thrilled to be going home at the end of the day.

Write on!
dirndl: Thanks. And yes, at least one dollop needed!

lschmoopie: Thanks, and I have already begun appreciating your dementia posts and am looking forward to more.

Auntynae: Thanks. Do you write about your experiences working in a nursing home?
Ahh, such a gentle, loving post. Amazing to me that your brother pulled off the road trip with them. . . your parents have done somethings right - to be aging as gracefully as possible, still at home - in the care and open arms of their children. I have hair raising stories -- making decisions forced in crisis for both parents, declining quickly, both taken by Alzheimer's... I can't face writing about them. Not yet. This story was actually refreshing, and life affirming. thank you.
Vivian, your comment makes me get a little teary -- thank you! My brothers and I are indeed very fortunate that my parents are able to be so graceful so far. I can understand that you cannot yet write about your experience. I'm so glad that reading mine could be life-affirming. I plan to do more of these.
I'm thinking I might disrupt the space-time continuum by printing this for my in-laws (he has dementia, she is forgetful and hard of hearing).

Recently I took my wife to visit her aunt in the nursing home. I chose to sit in the lobby and read. An older gentleman came by with his walker and sat on the sofa opposite me and struck-up a conversation. He seemed normal enough and we had a decent chat. He told me where he lived, what he had done for a living, etc. By and large, a normal conversation. Then he started with the re-runs. Telling me about himself - same details but in a different order. I had asked him earlier why he was there and he told me he had some health issues but was better now. After the third time telling me he grew up near the Baltimore Colts, I was just about to tell him why I thought he was there - but my wife walked up and interrupted our conversation. Then he started his spiel with my wife.

I truly feel for everyone who has to witness the slowing-down of their loved ones. This is a great piece and it made me laugh!
JTB, please feel free to print and share!

Yeah, dealing constructively with dementia sure means learning to love the reruns, and to sincerely answer the same question each time it is asked, even if it's asked 45 times in an hour! I occasionally find a response that shuts down an anxious session of questioning (e.g., when my mom at bedtime is incessantly asking, "Now, what day is tomorrow? [and if it will be Tuesday] Do I go on the bus? Well, I don't want to go..." sometimes I'll move to "You know what? Tomorrow's not here yet. We need to live in the moment. Let's not think about tomorrow until tomorrow comes"), but if it's a happy repetition of something, I try to go with the flow.
JoAnne, I enjoyed reading your blog about your experiences with your parents. Knowing them, I could hear their voices and see their expressions as I read your dialogue with them. It has sparked fond and painful memories of my own mother's final year of life. I am so thankful for the time I had with her during our daily visits after my father's death until she followed him. I aplaud the devotion of you and your brothers as you take time out of your busy lives to spend with those who did the same for you many years ago.

I often think of the song by Harry Chapin, Cat's in the Cradle, and how easy it is for us to be too busy to spend time with those who love us and the repercussions for that choice.