My mother is 97 and has made a series of moves during the past few years, as her needs have changed. She never wanted to move in with her children, and years ago my father moved them to a community that has different care options, so they would always have a good place to be. Now, at 97, we are experiencing what this looks and feels like.
My mom has aged well. I like to say she still has about 87% of her marbles. She gets frustrated when she can’t think of the words she wants, but still has a vocabulary better than most of us. She can barely swallow and sits in a wheelchair and speaks very softly and doesn’t hear well, but you can have a good time and fun conversation with her. She has an attitude of gratitude, and it wasn’t always that way, so I am so very grateful to be able to say that. She asks after and cares about others and loves to hear their news. She voted in the last election and cares about the world.
But if you have known people closely while they aged, you probably know that different days can be very different. When my mom has a urinary tract infection, for example, she can seem well physically but go bat-shit crazy paranoid. This is painful but thank goodness resolves with antibiotics getting rid of the infection. During hospitalizations she becomes totally disoriented, but this resolves as she gets home and into a routine again.
All of this is to set the stage for understanding where she lives now- on the third floor of a health center. Now, some of you also know that the higher the floor, the less capable the ‘inmates’ (as my mother irreverently calls herself and companions.) The top floor is usually the locked down, secure “memory-care” unit. My mom’s third floor is not that, but you have to go behind the nurse’s station to push the elevator button. That says a lot. More of her “neighbors” are confused than not.
In the lounge, elderly men and women are in wheelchairs doing the shuffle scoot to get around slowly, or are in reclining wheelchairs and totally dependent. A very few are ambulatory. Some walk and talk to themselves but most seem calm and quiet or sociable.
But yesterday when I visited, I was accosted- first by a blue-haired lady, nicely dressed, who called out to me, “Oh, can you help me? Can you help me find my family? Howles- H-O-W-L-E-S. Can you find them for me?” I gently point to the (now empty) nurse’s station and tell her that they will be the best people to help her- they have telephones and will be back soon to help. She thanks me and seems calm, or at least mollified for the moment.
As I take a few steps and turn a man in a wheelchair (who is usually silent) blurts out to me, “Help, help me. “ “You have to help me,” he says. Then, “My wife is sitting in the back seat.” It tears me up- does he think he is driving a car, with his wife in the back? I take his hand and say, “This is a safe place.” I point to helpers getting pills and drinks ready and say, “These people are here to help you, it will be all right.”
I proceed to have a nice visit with my mom, but I am left disconcerted and wondering. Does my mom ever feel left alone? Already, she is able to remember how to use her phone and call us sometimes and other times she says she was unable to “get it to work.” What happens when she is unable to remember that we will be visiting in a day or two? Will she feel forgotten, lost and afraid? Will she be easily calmed?
Everyone’s life journey is unique. I hope she skips the “Help me and get me out of here” panic.