Giving Thanks

As we approach the holiday season with Thanksgiving as our kickoff, we will often carve out the time to reflect on all we have to be thankful for.

For my husband and I, it is all about family and friends. We rejoice in the news of our nephew and his wife expecting a new baby come summertime. We rejoice in the knowledge our elderly mothers are both safe, happy and healthy. We rejoice in our good fortune of having time to spend with friends and family members, sharing the laughter and sometimes, a few tears. Most of all, we are thankful for each other.

We wish you and your families much joy this Thanksgiving holiday.


A Milestone: The Decision to Stop Driving

The milestones of our youth reflect our beginnings. Our first steps. Our first kiss. Our first road trip sitting in the driver’s seat. As we enter our twilight years, many of our milestones can be perceived as conclusions. Yet, if we choose to embrace them, they are simply the beginnings of the next stages in our lives.

Like many elderly folks, the decision to stop driving was a difficult one for my mother to make. It was the loss of what she believed to be the key to her independence. She had spent her entire adult life being able to hop into her car and go wherever she wanted. Whether it was schlepping her growing children around to baseball practices and horseback riding lessons. Or scooting into town to run errands. Or hitting the road for an extended visit with an old friend a few hundred miles away.

My first challenge was helping my mother to understand it was time for her to get off the road while still maintaining her sense of independence. And while her emotional health was a concern, the top priority was her physical safety. And as importantly, the safety of other travelers.

My journey began with our family doctor and without his help I would have had a much rougher time of it. We discussed my mother’s overall health and abilities. We determined the time had come for my mother to stop driving because of her mental and physical limitations. He kindly offered to be the bad guy. He said it wouldn’t be his first appearance in that role. He said he found it was often easier for an elderly patient to get annoyed with him rather than a family member. He said based on his experience, I should prepare myself for my mother to get mad. Real mad.

My mother finally did turn in her car keys. Two years after we first approached her on the subject. Yup…it took two years. Two long, knicker-twisting, hand-wringing, hair-pulling years. Because every time we brought up the subject, my mother would dance around what she knew in her heart would be the final outcome. She made every excuse in the book. She took procrastination to a higher level. She did not go peacefully. I understood her reluctance. Didn’t make it any easier, but I got it.

My second challenge was finding her a way to get out and about with some sense of independence, as I knew she did not want to be dependent on me. I looked into a myriad of options. And narrowed it down to two organizations in my area. One group called Seniors Helping Seniors and another group called Visiting Angels. After meeting with them both at my mother’s apartment, we chose Seniors Helping Seniors as the best solution for us. They gave us the flexibility of time we needed, plus they were on-budget for the services we needed.

And in the end, it was the beginning of the next stage in my mother’s life. It was the perfect solution. She had a newfound companion. A gal named Lorraine. They became buddies. My mother looked forward to the days when Lorraine came to take her out to the grocery store or the post office or to the hair salon. She enjoyed being chauffeured around and looking at the scenery, rather than having to concentrate on the road. She would routinely bake an extra batch of zucchini bread or carrot cake for Lorraine to take home for her and her elderly mother to enjoy. And for no special reason, just because. Around the holidays, Lorraine would leave my mother’s apartment with multiple tins of cookies filled to their brims.

Lorraine was a gem. She was patient and kind and understanding. And very helpful to me in monitoring my mother’s mental and physical abilities. Lorraine told me on more than one occasion that she loved spending time with my mother, as she did with all the folks she served.

And you know, even though my mother has moved into assisted living…I still send Lorraine a holiday card every year. Just because.

The Art of the Con

Con artists come in all shapes and sizes and colors. From any age group, profession or background. The commonality they share is they stalk their prey with a calculated precision. And those who target the elderly can be the most cunning.

My mother is a giver, with a distinctly charitable nature, which makes her an easy mark. Throughout her lifetime, she has extended her helping hands on more than one occasion, but never with too much fallout. Unfortunately, the last time was a doozie.

We first met my mother’s predator on the day the gal moved into the apartment below my mother. My husband and I were bringing my mother home after a visit to our house and ran into the gal in the parking lot. She introduced herself as “Tracy” and told us she was the director of a local eldercare facility. And while she looked the part, there was something about her that didn’t ring true.

During our brief conversation, she offered to check in on my mother from time to time. She said she understood how hard it can be to care for an elderly parent if you cannot always be there for them. And how comforting it can be to know a friendly neighbor is close by. But there was something about her offer that seemed odd and out of place to my husband and I. So, we smiled politely in response and told her we lived only a few miles away. And it was no problem for us to be there for my mother for whatever she may need, whenever she may need it.

And we thought that was the end of it. Until my mother started mentioning that “Tricky Tracy”, as my husband and I came to call her, had been stopping by. To offer to take out my mother’s garbage. Or ask if my mother needed anything at the grocery store. Or if she needed anything mailed at the post office.

Then the day came when my mother told me Tricky was in a bit of financial trouble. Her identity had been stolen and her entire bank account had been cleaned out. So she had asked my mother if she could borrow a few hundred dollars to tide her over until she could get it all straightened out. Which my mother handed to her with no questions asked. Our nightmare had begun.

My mother is an independent soul and the easiest way to encourage her to do something is to suggest she do the exact opposite. So while the alarm bells were wailing inside my head, I knew I had to tread cautiously with any advice I gave her. I told my mother she was being very charitable with her offer to lend Tricky money, but I hoped she would not make a habit of it. After all, we really didn’t know Tricky that well. My mother assured me she would not. Besides, she believed Tricky was simply a nice gal who was having a bit of bad luck.

At this point in time, my mother still had total control over her finances. And I knew there was nothing I could do to stop her from spending her money any way she chose. And the more I tried to prevent the situation from getting any worse, the more stubborn my mother became about her decision to keep handing Tricky money.

As the months ticked by Tricky gave my mother one heart-wrenching story after another. Including her promises to pay my mother back, which she never did. After more prodding and pushing on my part, my mother finally admitted to me how much money Tricky had taken from her. Almost all of my mother’s life savings. That is when I drew a line in the sand with my mother, stepped in and took control of the situation.

To make a long story short, Tricky moved out of her apartment in the middle of the night less than 24 hours after my last conversation with her. I contacted the police and learned they had received other complaints about Tricky, but since the money had always been given willingly, their hands were tied. We did take Tricky to claims court and won our case. But Tricky had spent all the money, so we were never able to recover what she had stolen. And as it turns out, she was not the director of a local eldercare facility. She was a housekeeper at a completely different eldercare facility.

The judge in our court case was very sympathetic, and gave us Tricky’s forwarding address when she did not show up for her court appearance. And so was the director of our county’s Department of Aging, who personally called each director of all the eldercare facilities in our area, not only in our county but in the surrounding counties. He gave them all the information they needed to make sure Tricky would never work again in any eldercare facility within a four-county radius.

So, why am I sharing this distinctly private and personal information?

Because our story is not unique. It was frightening to learn how often con artists masquerade as friendly neighbors or good samaritans or even caring family members to target the elderly. Their end goal is always the money. And they ply their trade with eloquence and finesse.

Losing the money was one thing. Witnessing my mother’s emotional reaction was another. For quite some time she berated herself for being so stupid. All I could tell her was that it would all be okay. And assure her the nightmare had ended.

My mother was able to recover financially. And she is no longer in control of her finances. But the emotional hit took longer. For her and for me. She still wonders how she could have been so gullible. From time to time, I still wonder what more I could have done to prevent it from happening.

However, I have come to accept the fact I cannot protect my mother from all the evils of the world. Sometimes bad stuff happens to good folk. How we react to the situation is the key. I take comfort in the knowledge that we did our due diligence in regards to Tricky Tracy. And if I can share our experience, perhaps other people will not be taken in by her kind of predator.

I do know what goes around, comes around. I just wish I could be there, like a little fly on the wall, the day it comes back around on ol’ Tricky. That would be a satisfying sight to see.

Seeking Non-Perfection

Filed away in the “Random Factoid” section of my brain is the knowledge that ancient weavers would purposely include an imperfection in their masterpieces. They believed only God could create perfection, not humankind.

I have always thought this was a unique perspective. And a viewpoint I have recently decided to embrace.

No one is perfect. I know I am not. And accepting this as fact can be enlightening. Especially as a caregiver of an elderly parent. Because we are human. We have our emotional highs and lows. We have our limitations. And it’s okay if we do not always respond as perfectly as we think we should to a certain stimulus.

It’s okay to fail sometimes. It’s okay to react emotionally and not logically. It’s okay to get mad or be sad.

It’s not okay to beat ourselves up about it. It’s not okay play the “Woe Is Me” game in the mirror for hours at a time. It’s not okay to give up and throw in the proverbial towel.

When my mother’s dementia forces her brain into a repetitious-thought-loop, asking the same series of questions over and over and over again, I usually respond calmly and with patience. I have discovered I can often break her thought pattern by changing the subject mid-loop. Not always, but most times.

However, there are those moments when I do not react calmly and with patience. And instead, have the exact opposite response. I lose my patience. I lose my sense of calm. I lose my cool.

I get frustrated. I get angry. And I speak with a sharp tongue. And each time, afterwards I play the “Why Didn’t I Just Keep My Mouth Shut” game.

But then I had my epiphany. I discovered my frustration and anger was spurred by her frustration and anger. Because sometimes she works herself up over an issue that would not have been an issue at all ten years ago. But now, it is. And when I see her upset and confused and disoriented, all I want to do is help her. Solve her problem. Make it all better for her.

Because that is what she has always done for me. With warm ginger ale when I was five years old and had an upset stomach. With a soft hug when I was 12 years old and was told we were moving once again to another state, away from my best gal pals. And with a glowing smile when I was a young adult and learned I was accepted into art school.

My mother has been there for me during the good and bad in my early years of life. And I like to think I am here for her now, during the good and bad at this stage in her life. Because in the end, it is all about encouragement. And forgiveness. And the giving of yourself.

It has never been about perfection.

Magic Numbers

My mother has always been a numbers gal, with a love for the art of figuring. She is a mathematician at heart. Yet, when it comes to her age, she has never paid much attention to it. She always told me age was nothing more than a number, and should never be a state of mind.

As she grew older, she would often have people ask her how it felt to be a certain age. She always responded, “Well, I have never been this age before either. Ask me next year and I will let you know.”

My mother is now 93-and-a-half years young. And considering how long she has lived on this earth, she is in relatively good physical and mental health. She has the arthritis which makes it harder for her to move around now and a few other minor ailments. Plus she suffers from dementia. But her spirit remains strong and her heart is happy.

My paternal grandmother lived to 89 years. And her mother lived to 101 years. This is in stark contrast to a close family friend who passed away in her early 70s. And one of my mother’s oldest and dearest friends who passed away a few months ago at the age of 77 years. Or one of my oldest and dearest friend’s mother, who passed away recently in her mid-80s.

Which proves the hypothesis there is no magic number. Every person is different. Every situation is different. There is no crystal ball to gaze into. No tea leaves to read. No voice booming from the sky.

And rather than seeking the magic in a number, I’d rather embrace the magic I see shining within the bright blue eyes of my mother.

Redefining Vocabulary

My habits have changed during the past decade as my responsibilities for my mother’s care have increased. My vocabulary being the most poignant.

Before my mother’s short-term memory started to fail…and as importantly, before I first started to notice it failing…our conversations were pretty common. What you would typically expect between a mother and daughter.

She would call me up and ask, “So, what time did you tell me you would pick me up for brunch on Sunday?” And I would respond, “Remember, I said 11:00?” She would reply, “Thought so, but just wanted to double-check. See you then, honey.”

An fairly uneventful conversation. Hey, we all forget things sometimes, right? No big deal. And usually, our first response when asked a question like this is to acknowledge that we had already shared the information.

Yet, as I began to realize I was getting more and more of these types of queries from my mother, and my responses would usually begin with “Remember” or “I told you yesterday”, I came to understand to what degree my standard responses were influencing her mental health. And not in a positive way. Especially in the days before she acknowledged and took ownership of her failing short-term memory.

My mother has always been an organized gal. It is simply part of her nature. She enjoys having all her ducks in a row. And even though she tried to compensate by writing down every bit of information that came across her radar which she deemed important…there came a point in time when this methodology was no longer working for her.

As her short-term memory got worse, she was having problems understanding the random scribbles on her note pad. Or she couldn’t find her note pad. Or she had so many piles of note pads on her coffee table, she no longer knew which were current and which were old.

And as I heard the frustration in her voice when I would respond to her queries with the preface of “Remember”, I realized I had to change my approach. So, I made a definitive effort to remove certain words and phrases from my vocabulary. And “Remember” was the first word I crossed off my list.

Now I no longer start a conversation with the phrase “Don’t forget…”, and try not to reply to any of her comments by saying “Honey, we already talked about this”. And never, ever, nadda do I say “I have told you 33 times already in the past two hours”. I mean, really…why would I? To make myself feel superior? Whose purpose does that serve?

And when my mother goes into what I have dubbed “broken-record-syndrome”, where she repeats the same three questions over and over and over again in sequence…I give her three or four rounds of repetition where I answer her questions. Then I break the cycle by introducing a completely different topic. Which usually works. Ahem. Usually.

However, what I have found to be the most fascinating is how my redefinition of the vocabulary I use to communicate with my mother has weaseled its way into my daily personal and professional communications. I no longer ask my husband if he remembered to add the powder room trash to Monday night’s garbage run. Instead, I put a reminder note on the refrigerator Monday morning that says “Check Powder Room Trash”. And I never tell one of the folks I work with that I already emailed them the information they are asking me about…for the third time. I simply resend them the email again and again and again, with a notation saying “Here it is again. Let me know if you have any questions.” And reply patiently with the phrase “No worries” when they respond “Oops. Sorry, missed it. Thanks.”

It appears I am living and breathing proof of the old adage that whatever activity you do for 30 days in succession becomes a habit. Yet I have to wonder, at what stage in my life will the word “Remember” no longer be forbidden?  When will I stop feeling awkward starting a conversation with “Don’t forget to…”.  But then again, in the long run, does it really truly matter if I never go back to my old vocabulary?