If the process of caring for my mom has gone a bit more smoothly than expected, I can thank past experience. In other words, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo.
My grandmother moved in with us when I was just beginning high school. I was beyond excited. I adored my Grandma, even though she never tired of telling me that I was “too skinny.”
The biggest issue was how to fit her into our little house. We had five rooms, including two bedrooms. The answer was to give grandma my bedroom and arrange for me to sleep on a borrowed cot-style bed in the living room. So grandma became the “purple princess” in my “lavender kingdom” and slept on my prized “gold”-trimmed twin bed from Sears. My grandmother was all of four feet and eight inches tall with creamy white hair and sparkling brown eyes. The whole set-up suited her.
Me, not so much. Cramming my five feet and seven inches onto that cot and trying to get a full night’s sleep was a challenge. My feet hung off the edge of the mattress, and rolling over meant that I would most likely fall onto the floor. After kissing the linoleum a few times, I became an expert “spinner” — and still am, to this day.
But it was all worth it. My grandmother had always been a loving presence and guiding force in my life, and the sound of her frequent laughter in our house was music to my ears. Some of the best times of my life occurred when my father’s sister Bernice came to visit and everyone sat in the kitchen telling stories and just feeling loved. Like everyone else, Aunt Bernice enjoyed my grandmother’s company immensely. Having two of my favorite people in our cheery yellow kitchen and sharing “coffee talk” with them was an experience beyond compare.
There were challenges, to be sure. A short while after Grandma moved in it became apparent that along with her limited mobility (due to arthritis) were some mental challenges as well. She began yelling out in her sleep at night, frightening me and infuriating my dad. Her diabetes worsened, resulting in some health challenges. As time went on, the tension between my parents became so high that I feared that they might split up.
“Are you getting a divorce?” I once asked my them. “We can’t afford one,” they answered in unison. How reassuring.
After a few years, Grandma ended up in the hospital and was sent directly to a nursing home. I recall my mother’s tearful days during that time, and her sadness and self-blame. To her credit, my mother had up to that point kept her full-time factory job and basically run a nursing home – albeit for a single resident — at the same time. This came with an unfortunate side effect, a “disconnect” on her part when I needed her most. And even though I was able to reclaim my mother and my bedroom, I missed my Grandma terribly when she moved into a nursing home. To this day I de-stress by allowing myself to recall the peace and contentment of sitting with her in our small living room and enjoying “The Mike Douglas Show” and the line-up of afternoon mysteries and detective shows. (Often my mother would arrive home from work just in time for “McMillan and Wife” with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, and she would say that if she had Susan Saint James’ body she would wear just a t-shirt to bed as well – EVERY SINGLE TIME. And my ultra-conservative Grandma would pretend not to hear).
My mother often brings up the fact that I helped out with my grandmother, but in truth she gives me way too much credit. She was the one doing the heavy lifting.
And, like my mother, my grandmother ended up giving us a lot more than we gave her in terms of unconditional love, kindness and sheer joy.
Now that I am caring for my own mom with dementia, I do find myself marveling at the endless stores of patience I had when dealing with my grandmother. You want another sandwich? No problem. Change the channel? Sure. A cup of coffee? Coming right up. Sit and chat with you instead of running out the door so much? That’s fine, too.
I try to be patient with my mom, but some days are tougher than others – especially when there are a bunch of other stressors thrown my way. Obviously I am much older now. But what happened to the optimism and “we can do this” attitude that I had enjoyed only a few short years ago?
The answer that I have come up with is this. When I looked at Grandma, I did not see my future. When I look at my mom, I surely do. And frankly it unnerves me.
I confessed this to my husband and a few close friends recently at a holiday party. “My fear is that I will get dementia like my mother, but I won’t be as adorable and pleasant as she is.”
“You could never be as adorable as your mom is,” one of them said, adopting a menacing pose and nasty expression. “You’re gonna be a cranky old lady yelling ‘Hey you kids, get off my lawn!’”
We all laughed. It was a relief, frankly, to put one of my biggest fears “out there” and then end up being teased by my always funny friend.
As we toasted the New Year later that night, I gave a silent prayer of thanks for people who make you laugh. Crying is overrated, and so “last year.” I hope.