My Mom has been at Vista Springs for some time now. We see her once a week and I feel sad and guilty when I go to see her, and sad and guilty when I leave. I think about her quality of life and am not sure it even applies. I know they do take care of her so I’m grateful that’s not a concern. She turned 91 this summer and now she sleeps about 22 hours a day. It’s hard now to carry on conversations. Her memory continues to slip so we try to tap into her long term memory by talking about older times and stories. We show her pics on our phones or a cartoon I stole on line.
Since Dad died years ago, she always said she missed being touched. That’s when Karen and I decided to give her two geriatric gift massages every year for Christmas. So when we’d visit, I would remember this and rub her head, arm or back which reminded me just how tiny and frail she is now. But that of course just puts her to sleep. Now I’ll sit on the couch with my arm around her shoulders and have her rub my arm. I’m really proud of this opportunistic self serving strategy. This keeps her awake for a while longer. When we’re getting ready to go I’ll rub her arms or back so she’ll go to sleep and is less likely to cry when we leave.
I have seen a lot of poignant moments at Vista Springs. The seven or so ladies in Moms “pod” take care of each other. It’s touching. There was an English woman there that hated my guts. She’d give me the stink eye from across the room or assail my integrity and reputation as I walked by. Sometimes I didn’t even understand the English phrases of her insults. She must’ve met Bad Santa many years ago.
I never heard Mom’s last roommate say a word. Her short silver hair was always askew and her eyes were rimmed red as though from tears. She always looked terribly sad which I could intuitively understand. Her husband Tom was always by her side. As faithful as the sunrise. I was in the hallway waiting for Mom one time when I saw them sitting side by side looking out the bedroom window at an unremarkable field. The Venetian blinds were down but angled open letting in the horizontal light that revealed only their silhouettes. She on the right with her unkempt hair and Tom on her left with no hair. I wondered what they were thinking. Was she remembering her wedding? Her children? A moment of intimacy or romance? Or was her mind a Picasso canvas of jumbled thoughts and images? Was he sleeping or thinking about life without her or how much he loved her? Then I saw his right hand raise and rest on her forearm as though to make sure she was still there. A powerfully intimate moment for such a simple gesture which made me ashamed I was watching. By the time Mom had returned I had tears in my eyes as I clenched my molars into dust as though that would stem the flow. This is what I do, why my masseter jaw muscles are so pronounced. This couple was living the vow of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part”. She was gone shortly after that and I hope that someone would be there when her husband Tom needs it the most.
I’ve told Karen that I could never live like that. Not that I remotely expect to live that long. A friend once said regarding an impossibility “the chances are slim to none and slim just left town”. All of this has made me wonder about the impressive strides in medicine today. But no matter how advanced we get, there are no procedures or pills to alleviate the humiliation of sliding into incompetence or incontinence. Nothing to give you back that human dignity. It’s mean and it’s ugly.
I keep trying to convince myself that this “Mom stuff” is not about me. On the other hand, yes it is. I’m 62 now and so is Karen. It’s about all of my boomer friends and family. We are dealing with this more and more in our lives and I know others have gone through this already but it’s only novel when it happens to you.
At our age our survivability is a function of genetics and life style and fortune. I’m pretty sure few of us have illusions about this now. So what can we do as we move inch by inch? How do we maintain an enriched quality of life?
Not to long ago I read that studies showed that simple thoughts of being grateful were effective in elevating our spirits. This sure is true for me. It changes the way I think. It makes me humble. I have to remember this.
I have to be more Zen. Staying in the moment. Which takes a lot of training and discipline. It means not borrowing trouble from the future or the past. It means being optimistic against all odds. To be hopeful, which is the oxygen we breathe during difficult and tragic times. Take away hope and we can suffocate.
But most of all it means managing my expectations. None of the above are reflexive for me. I can’t be good at all of this all the time. I have to forgive myself. Again and again and again. And again for getting old. And remember that the good thing about the future is it starts again tomorrow.