Holiday Heebie-Jeebies

Last year was my elderly mother’s first Easter in her new digs at the assisted living facility. She and I attended services in the chapel and I joined her for lunch in the dining room. While it was different from the previous year when she was still living independently and came to my house for the holiday, we had a nice time. And it worked.

However, this year I knew I would have to change it up a bit. Because for a person suffering from dementia as my mother does, a lot can change in a year. A lot can change in a few months. Oh, who am I kidding? A lot can change in the course of a few short weeks.

As this Easter Sunday approached, I realized I was not looking forward to this holiday.  I recognized the familiar sense of dread I have been feeling at the approach of every holiday for quite a while now. I become afflicted with a nasty case of the Holiday Heebie-Jeebies. Because I never know which “Mom” will be “in the house” that day. Will it be the happy gal who chatters away repeating the same stories, but with whom you can still have a pleasant visit? Or will it be the nervous twittery gal who is anxious and confused due to a change in her daily routine, which makes for a very unpleasant visit?

After giving it some thought, I opted to visit her at the assisted living facility again this year, rather than inviting her to my house for Easter brunch. But we did not attend services in the chapel. We did not share a lunch in the dining room. We did not go to one of the lounges on her floor.

We stayed in her room. I brought her flowers, arranged them in a vase and placed them on the table by her window where she could see them. I put away the personal care items I had brought her, took stock of her current inventory and made a list of items she would need on my next visit. Outside of that bouquet of spring flowers, it turned out to be pretty much of a routine visit.

We did have a nice conversation, since I kept it to topics which I knew would be easy to chat about, as has been my habit lately. And we enjoyed a laugh or two. I did extend my visit longer than has been our routine. Which raised my mother’s anxiety level since lunch was being served earlier that day because of the holiday. And as our visit was coming to its close, she kept her eyes on the clock, announcing the time every two to three minutes.

Hey, I get it. I’m not a total idiot. I understand that being on time for meals and activities is important to her. Which is why I schedule my visits with her to coordinate with her daily timeline and not what is convenient or easier for me. And holidays are no different.

What has become different for me is that I have finally had my holiday epiphany. I have made the conscious decision that while I will ensure my mother will have a pleasant holiday experience, it is as important that I have the opportunity to do so as well. And my personal holiday celebration will not always be shared with my mother.

Sometimes my holiday celebration will be shared only with my husband and my puppies. An early morning walk in the park. An afternoon sitting together outside in our backyard, with my puppies napping in the sun, while I finish the book I have been reading and my husband snoops through our garden books for seasonal inspiration. Or perhaps an evening of watching old movies in the peace and quiet of our family room.

I can honestly say I now feel cured of those nasty Holiday Heebie-Jeebies. I have been self-vaccinated with the realization that my holiday experiences are just as important as my mother’s. And I am not being a selfish person. Or cruel one. But I am learning how to be a survivor.


The Drill Sergeant

My niece, who is my elderly mother’s youngest grandchild, pinged me yesterday. She wanted to let me know she would be traveling close to our area for a few days on a spur-of-the-moment trip. Since she lives over 1,000 miles away, her news was a welcome surprise. She was planning on extending her trip for an additional day, so she could take the seven-hour-plus round-trip drive to visit with her grandmother. And hopefully, my husband and myself.

My niece is a sweetheart of a gal in her late 20’s. And like her brother and sister, she adores her grandmother. And while we were all disappointed that my husband and I would not be able to clear our schedule on such short notice, she still wanted to visit with her grandmother.

It has been over a year-and-a-half since my niece has seen my mother. Their last visit was at my nephew’s wedding. And while I did not want to set off alarm bells in my niece’s mind, I felt the need to mentally and emotionally prepare her for what she would experience. A lot has changed in the past year-and-a-half for my mother, with her dementia kicking into high gear and the decrease in her physical abilities. I knew my niece would be better served to be in the know, rather than blind-sided.

As my niece and I continued our conversation, I began to feel like a drill sergeant as I shared all the “do’s” and “don’ts” for visiting my mother. A comprehensive list of requirements that I have long since accepted as the norm. But for someone who is unfamiliar with the eldercare gig, my instructions sounded more like the ramblings of a person suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder.

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Do call her at least two days before you plan to visit. Don’t leave a voice message if she does not answer the phone, but rather call back in a few minutes. Because she rarely notices the little blinking red light on her phone indicating there is a message waiting to be heard. And if she would notice it, she is no longer capable of retrieving the message, even though the simple instructions on how to do so are right by the phone.

Do be aware she is on a time schedule for her three meals a day. Don’t come during those times or in the evening. And don’t extend your visit so that you are there a half-hour before a meal time. She will be constantly watching the clock, anxious for you to leave, so she can get to the dining room on time. The best time to visit is mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Don’t visit in the evening, because she is not as mentally alert then.

Do call her again the day before you visit and once again when you are about an hour away from arriving at her facility. Don’t neglect to do this, because the chances are good she will not remember you are coming, no matter how many reminders she has scribbled on notepads scattered about her room. And if she does not retain the memory you are coming, she will be confused and disoriented, which means you will not have a very pleasant visit.

Do sign in with the receptionist when you arrive at the assisted living facility and ask to be shown the way to her room. And be sure to sign out when you leave. Don’t feel as if you need to stay in her room for your visit. There are two well-appointed lounges on her floor and you may be more comfortable visiting with her there. Don’t expect her to know where those lounges are, so be sure to ask the receptionist when you sign in.

Do expect to see a marked decrease in her mental ability and in her physical mobility since the last time you saw her. Don’t be surprised if she repeats herself or asks you the same questions over and over again. Don’t lose patience when she goes to the bathroom six times before you leave her room to go to the lounge.

Do keep your conversation simple when you share your news with her. Don’t fill your conversation with too much detail as she will not be able to process it. Don’t expect her to remember the names of your brother and sister and their children. Best to introduce them into your conversation by saying “my brother, Bob and his wife, Janice…”.

Do try to keep to topics about yourself and family, rather than about her. While she may not remember a lot of what you talk about after you leave, she will enjoy your stories at the moment you share them. Don’t ask her about bingo or her other activities unless she brings them into your conversation. Because she has been getting confused lately when people ask her these questions.

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As I came to the end of my dissertation, I knew there were many more details I had left out. But I was hesitant to slam dunk my niece with too much more information than I already had. My niece was a real trooper though, and we joked about my role as her Drill Sergeant. But she understood and she thanked me. And said she felt at peace knowing I was taking care of her grandmother.

Nice gal, my niece.