Letting it go to voicemail

As my parents’ health was deteriorating and they needed more and more in-home care, I was getting a lot of phone calls from the VNA and other agencies to coordinate it, and of course from Mom and Dad themselves. Any one of those calls could have meant a crisis, or at the very least, a worry or a hassle. It got so that whenever my phone rang, my stomach would clench with anxiety. It was too much.

To avoid associating that feeling with every phone call I ever got, I assigned the iPhone’s “bulletin” ring tone to all contacts related to my parents in any way. My “normal” ring tone (James Bond theme music, natch) became nonthreatening again.

Though the volume of parent-related calls is way down now, I’ve maintained the “bulletin” ring tone for my mother, her doctors, and her assisted living facility. One of the healthiest changes that’s happened for me since Mom moved there is that I don’t feel I have to answer all her calls. I know she is fine. When I don’t want to talk, or listen, I just don’t. If I’m walking, sleeping, shopping, hanging out with friends or family, I don’t have to. If I just don’t feel like it, I don’t have to.

Such a simple thing, to have regained that modicum of control over my own life. Such a huge relief.

This morning, on a walk in the woods, I heard the bulletin tone and declined the call. This evening, with dinner on the stove, I heard the bulletin tone and declined the call. I listened to the voicemails later. They were not urgent. I’m going to see her tomorrow. She can wait.

I’m allowed to walk in nature undisturbed. I’m entitled to make dinner for my family without jumping at an interruption from my mother.

I was on a short leash for a long time, and I’m not anymore.

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Life in Memory Care

Assisted living is a whole new world, my friends.

Where Mom lives now, the residents are in different stages of their various dementias (“I think a lot of these people have Alzheimer’s,” she whispered to me one day, without irony). On one end of the spectrum are those who move around on their own, speak clearly and cogently, socialize well and participate in the activities. If they could remember things, they wouldn’t be here. On the other, there are a couple of people who never speak at all, or who need to be wheeled around from one part of their day to the next. Most residents fall somewhere in the middle.

I am there several times a week, and each visit brings something poignant, or hilarious, or lovely, or sad.

It makes me happy to see Mom making friends with some of her housemates, behaving less frostily toward others, and learning to ignore the one poisonously negative lady who lives to ruin everybody else’s day (that’d be Vilma, whose superpower is to leave you feeling bad for hours after a single interaction).

Mom hangs out with Ruthie and Barb, two lovely people whose short term memories are totally shot, but who are so nice and otherwise good company that it makes me sad they can’t remember the beginnings of our lunchtime conversations. On the up side, I don’t have to worry about repeating myself.

The other night Mom called me, quite upset. “Something really bad has happened here,” she said, “and we are all a bit shaken.” Prone to dark drama, I thought immediately that maybe someone had been injured, or had some kind of violent outburst. What could have shaken everybody? “Ruthie’s room was ransacked, and her purse was taken!” Oh dear. I suggested that maybe Ruth had been looking for something in her room, then come out for a meal and forgotten how she’d left things, returning to find them in upsetting disarray. We agreed that was a more likely explanation, and I urged Mom to ask one of the staff, if she felt at all frightened or uneasy about it. The next day, Ruthie was fine, not having been ransacked or robbed. All is well. But it made me realize how quickly fear can spread around in a group of people who feel vulnerable and talk a lot, but don’t reason very well.

 

Big Changes: Mom Edition

Over the last many months, I have been researching places for Mom to live after Dad died (with 12 years between them, it was a fair bet he’d predecease her). Several memory care assisted living places have been built nearby in recent years, and existing assisted living communities have added memory care to their offerings. It’s a growing need, for sure. Generally, these are not places where couples go to live together, so they weren’t viable considerations till Dad passed. Still, I collected brochures, gathered hints from people I know who work in the industry, and listened closely to other adult children tell their stories.

It is strange to me that we are so isolated in this process. Each family kind of has to invent the wheel for themselves. There is so much anxiety, and so little shared wisdom. The closest thing I can compare it to is applying to college, but in that, the anxiety comes from too much information about what other families are doing. There’s always the sense that everyone else is thinking of something you’ve forgotten, or that they’ve gotten better organized sooner, or something. With elder care, it’s anxiety borne of isolation. There’s no pathway to it that families take together or in parallel. It seems to me that as a society, we are kind of getting it wrong.

But I digress.

Some assisted living communities have memory care components; others are designed specifically and only for memory care. Some have all-inclusive pricing; others have tiered or itemized price lists. There are different settings, cultures, philosophies and programming at each. It is so much to consider, and the worst thing is to have to do it in a hurry; yet, many of us are in precisely that position. We need a place for a parent, stat. I did the best I could ahead of time and still feel it wasn’t enough.

Soon after Dad died, I made an appointment to tour the place I had liked best on paper and online. It was everything I could have hoped for, but expensive, so I needed time to be sure that my mother’s income and assets could make it work. I couldn’t commit right away and while I hated to let it go, had to pass up an available room. A couple of weeks later, when Mom was feeling up to checking the place out herself, Robin and I brought her there for the day. I thought she would have mixed feelings and we’d be in for a big discussion, but she liked it, and even said we should leave a deposit! By this time I knew I should not pass up the opportunity.

So it came to be that just six weeks after my father’s death, Aaron and Robin and I moved my mother into a memory care assisted living facility just 20 minutes’ drive from my house. She’s been so brave about giving up her familiar surroundings so soon after losing her husband of 52 years. It is early days yet but she seems to be adjusting fairly well… which is not to say she’s constantly delighted, but that she’s not going through anything that isn’t to be expected.

As for me, it is taking some getting used to not having to call her several times a day, and not living with the constant background anxiety that I might get an emergency phone call at any time of the night. There is very much to do at my parents’ house down Cape, but that is all just stuff. The emotional changes are profound and will take some time to realize. It is a mix of grief, relief, sympathy, exultation, sadness, happiness… everything, just everything. Whatever the feeling of the moment, though, I know this was absolutely the right move.

It’s a new chapter.