My dad’s frantic phone calls had become more and more frequent over the past year.
The progression of Mom’s Alzheimer's disease over the last eight years had been pretty much textbook. On one trip home, I found that she had lost her dentures somewhere in the house. When I returned only three months later, she appeared dirty and unkempt.
I was heartbroken and upset that my Dad seemed unaware of Mom's awful physical condition. He said she didn't want to change clothes or take baths, and he didn't want to argue with her. I got her cleaned up and called their doctor to fill him in. He ordered a certified nursing assistant (CNA) to come to their home once a week to monitor the situation and bathe Mom.
These are not the things you think about when you are 29 years old and decide to take a job 800 miles away from your parents. Now, at age 50, I was trying to manage their situation from afar and balance my life with my husband and an eleven-year-old.
It was tearing me apart.
Making a Decision
Dad called me one night to say that Mom was hitting him and lashing out. She had been incontinent for quite a while, too, and he just couldn't do it all anymore. The poor guy—he had been an engineer at Alcoa for 40 years. Who knew that taking care of his wife would prove harder than any engineering project he had ever tackled?
He wanted me to come get Mom for a “visit” to my home. I was thrilled to take on the responsibility and started making plans to prepare the house for Mom and move my parents from Iowa to Colorado. I flew to Iowa to solidify the plan with Dad, but once I arrived, I realized that he didn't want to relocate at 80 years of age. I didn't blame him, but it limited our options. With a heavy heart, he finally admitted it was time we look for a memory care unit for Mom close to their home.
Selecting a Memory Care Unit
That week I set up appointments for us to take tours at dementia care facilities nearby. We walked into the place that would become Mom's new home, and it just felt right. We were impressed with the staff and the selection of activities that were provided. They walked us down the hallway to look at one of the bedrooms, but Mom wandered off and began talking to the residents. Soon she was helping push a lady in a wheelchair.
We walked into what would be Mom's new bedroom, and the quilt on the bed happened to be the exact same one that was on my own bed back home in Colorado. What were the odds that this place would have the same bedding as mine?
Sometimes with difficult decisions, you just need a sign. Fortunately, I got one. As hard as this process was on us, I knew it was the right choice for her.
Preparing for the Move
We went back to the house, I sat down at the table where Mom had served our family all those amazing home-cooked dinners over the years, and I began the paperwork necessary to start the next stage of her life. I knew in my heart that if she was aware of what was happening, she would approve.
I gathered all her clothes and began the process of ironing name labels into each garment. Mom came downstairs as I was working. She must have heard me crying. She had a rare moment of clarity and called me by name, saying, “Oh, Holly, don't cry.”
“Mom, remember when you ironed labels in all my clothes before I started school?” I asked.
“I think so,” she replied tentatively.
“Well, that's exactly what I'm doing for you now, and they are going to look perfect! Just the way you did it for me!”
The move-in date was set. My dad and I both cried so much those few days beforehand, it felt like a death.
The afternoon of the move, Dad told me he couldn't take her over because he was just too emotional. He'd go the next day after she was all settled in.
Mom and Dad stood in the kitchen and I heard him whisper to her, “You are still my girl, Sal. You are still my girl. I will come visit you every day, I promise.” I still get choked up thinking about that tender moment. They were about to be separated for the first time in 52 years.
Dad stood in the doorway, waving goodbye as Mom and I pulled away. A few minutes later, we walked in the front door of the memory care unit. The activity director came over and whisked Mom off to Karaoke.
While she was occupied, I got her room all set up and decorated. When I walked into the activity center, Mom and the activity director were dancing to Elvis Presley, so I decided to stay for a bit. When I tapped her on the shoulder to say goodbye, she was still distracted by all the activity going on around her. This is how she must have felt dropping me off at school for the first time, I thought.
A Smooth Transition
The next morning, Dad and I arrived early to see Mom. She was already dressed and nicely groomed. All the ladies were eating breakfast together, and Mom looked at us without a hint of recognition. I then realized that she had no comprehension whatsoever that she was not at home.
Later, as Dad and I were driving back to the house, I told him that he had really given Mom a gift. He had been able to keep her home long enough so that, by the time she entered memory care, she had no transition issues. Every moment was a new one for her now. It was hard on us, but not on her.
We walked into the house and Dad said, “I guess she isn't going to come back home, is she?”
“No, Dad, she isn't.”
We are still adjusting to the long goodbye.