Cindy La Ferle on June 14th, 2013
It was almost midnight. My husband and I had just returned home after spending eight grueling hours in the emergency room with my elderly mother, who had fractured her back earlier that day.
Staggering like zombies into the kitchen, we were surprised to discover that our dear neighbor, Matilda, left a warm kettle of homemade minestrone on the stove — and even fed the cats in our absence. There aren’t enough words to express gratitude for a favor like that, so I promised to pay it forward when the next opportunity arises. And it will, sooner than later….
To read the rest of this column in the June issue of Michigan Prime, click here, then look for me on page 6 of the Western Wayne County or Oakland County editions.
Cindy La Ferle on April 3rd, 2013
Caregivers are forced to let go of a loved one little by little, again and again, sometimes over a span of many years.” — Leeza Gibbons, Take Your Oxygen First
Crafted from fine cotton yarn, the black cardigan sweater became a staple in my spring wardrobe after my mother bought it for me 10 years ago. Rediscovering it in the back of my closet last week, I suddenly recalled a happier memory of Mom – a time when I wasn’t overwhelmed by what social workers describe as “caregiver burnout.”
And then came an unexpected flood of tears.
It’s not like me to fall apart over a sweater while I’m reorganizing my closet. Usually, I welcome the chance to shove my winter-weary woolens back into storage and replace them with the lighter fabrics of spring.
But then again, my mother hasn’t been herself for several seasons, either.
Things began to unravel after my son left for college — just when my husband and I earned the freedom of our newly emptied nest.
First, we noticed Mom was repeating her favorite stories more often than usual. Then her friends would call to report that she’d forgotten to show up for club meetings and lunch dates. She’d drive herself to the ER during her panic attacks, which started occurring with alarming frequency. Not long afterward, her doctors told me to confiscate her car keys.
Mom was 79 and had been widowed for 16 years when she was officially diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2009. She was also battling heart disease and severe hearing loss.
Her only child, I was handed full responsibility of her medical care along with a checklist outlining her worrisome diagnosis.
“Start researching senior housing with memory care – now — so you’ll have choices,” her primary care physician advised. The doctor also asked if I had durable power of attorney (which I did) and reminded me to get all the legal documents in order.
At the time, Mom lived alone in a condo near my house. She refused to consider any type of senior housing, regardless of the fact that she’d been in and out of William Beaumont Hospital half a dozen times, and averaged 45 medical visits annually for countless illnesses, real and imaginary. (I took her to every single one.)
Facing the reality
More than anything, I wish my mother would have helped map the course of her own future. But no matter how tactfully I approached the topic of assisted living — and offered to schedule tours of the best facilities — she’d look at me as if I’d asked her to move to the Outer Hebrides with nothing but a toothbrush.
Regardless, I researched several senior housing options on my own. And just as the doctors had predicted, the decision was made for us — after yet another trip to the ER with Mom in December of 2011.
The research I’d done earlier made our next step a little easier. While my mother recovered from heart surgery at the hospital, my husband and I put a deposit on a studio apartment at an assisted living residence near our home. We moved her there the day she was released from rehab.
By this time, Mom’s dementia had progressed to the point where she couldn’t remember that she’d had surgery and spent weeks in the hospital. I tried to preserve her dignity while sugar-coating the progressive dementia issue. I reminded her that her health and safety were our biggest concerns. Through it all, she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home.
And how could I blame her for denying reality? Lately, I wish I could rewrite the whole scenario, too.
The grieving process
Saddest of all, dementia robbed Mom’s interest in almost everything she once enjoyed — Early American history, needlework, reading, lunch with friends. And clothes shopping.
In her prime, Mom had elevated bargain shopping to an art form, taking pleasure in scouting for gifts for people she loved. Even when I reached middle age, she’d insist on purchasing a new item of clothing for me whenever the seasons changed.
Which brings me back to the black sweater I mentioned at the start.
Ten years ago, Mom knew I’d been hunting for such a sweater — a classic black cardigan that would bridge the seasons. I’d shopped at several stores in two malls — but with no luck. I’d nearly given up when I discovered a T. J. Maxx shopping bag hanging from the side door of my house one afternoon. In it was the perfect black cotton sweater, which Mom had found on sale at one of her favorite haunts.
When I rediscovered it last month, my unexpected tears released a tsunami of mixed emotions.
Until then, I’d been raging inwardly at the dementia that had devoured my mother’s mind and rendered her incapable of making her own decisions. I hadn’t fully realized that I was grieving the loss of my “real” mother — the woman who had shared her wisdom and recipes, encouraged my career, babysat my son, and took delight in buying me new clothes.
Facing the unfixable
The ongoing nightmare of dementia is hard to explain to others who haven’t walked through this dark tunnel with a parent or a spouse. Whether you’re talking about Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia, helping a loved one with a memory loss disorder isn’t the same as nursing a heart condition or a broken limb.
“With memory loss disorders, there is no comfort to be found in hoping for future recovery or improvement,” writes Leeza Gibbons in Take Your Oxygen First, an excellent guide to caring for a loved one with memory loss.
“If we don’t grieve for what we have lost, we can’t experience what we have now,” Gibbons goes on to explain. “In the end, life isn’t about choosing what happens to us; we only get to choose how to respond to it.”
As I write this, Mom is in a nursing rehab facility after fracturing her back at her assisted living residence last month. Her team of physical therapists can’t determine, at this point, if she’ll learn how to walk again. She is twice as fearful and confused. I do my best to remain strong for her, though I’m often exhausted, hopeless, and resentful — and ashamed for feeling that way, too.
In my better moments, I learn everything I can about my mother’s health problems and advocate for her 24/7. I’ve also learned to guard my own health — and my time — knowing that I’m not the only one who depends on both.
Meanwhile, the black sweater serves as an emblem of my mother’s best years; a tangible reminder of her former self. But I doubt that I’ll wear it again. It doesn’t wrap around me as well as it did when Mom first gave it to me — as if to remind me that I’m not the same woman I was 10 years ago. – Cindy La Ferle
For tips on dealing with caregiver stress from the Mayo Clinic, click here.
Cindy La Ferle on March 29th, 2013
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~Henry David Thoreau
To my Facebook friends: I’ve temporarily deactivated my Facebook account this week.
As many of you know, my mother fell and fractured her hip recently. She’s recovering in a nursing center, and I’m often called on to advocate for her. Meanwhile, I’ve received many thoughtful (private) Facebook messages that I’ve neglected to answer — and I apologize for those oversights.
At stressful times like these, I tend to function best when I pull back, turn down the noise, do a reality check, and spend some quality “face time” with my posse.
This isn’t the first time I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. Last year I wrote an article about taking time off from Facebook, and was surprised by the hundreds of positive comments I received. That three-month break turned out to be one of the healthiest and most productive periods I’ve experienced in recent years — which is why I recommend short “retreats” from social media to everyone, from time to time.
But back to the present. When time allows, I’ll post a few essays here on the topic of dealing with elderly parents who suffer from dementia, knowing that many of you can relate to this ongoing midlife challenge. Thanks for your understanding — and I look forward to catching up soon. – Cindy La Ferle
Cindy La Ferle on February 15th, 2013
Be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur.” ~Muriel Spark
A supplement to The Detroit News and Free Press, Michigan Prime (formerly Michigan Senior Living) has a new title and design.
I’ve been writing a personal column for the magazine since June of last year, fulfilling my longtime dream of reaching a large audience of fellow Baby Boomers. So far, I’ve written columns about the decision to place my mother in assisted living; how to write a memoir; anger management; why self-care isn’t selfish; and more.
I’m always open to fresh ideas and midlife adventures for future columns, so please feel free to send me a private message using the “Contact” tab (above) on this site.
My goal for the bimonthly column is to inspire others who want to embrace the freedoms, changes, and challenges of the second half of life. Even if you don’t live in the Detroit area, you can read Prime online, where you’ll find my current column, “A Mother-in-law in Training.”
Cindy La Ferle on December 27th, 2012
They live forever in your broken heart….And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott
I‘m on holiday break for the next week, so I’ll continue to repost seasonal pieces. This one was published on Nov. 26, 2006 in my Daily Tribune “Life Lines” column. — CL
No matter how old you are, losing a parent is a difficult rite of passage. Like childbirth, it is such a complex, emotional experience that it’s never easy to explain to anyone who hasn’t walked through it.
My own father died suddenly at 65. I was 38 and had a family of my own, yet I still felt unmoored and abandoned. Even though my mother was alive and in good health then, it seemed as though I’d been exiled to a strange frontier without a map. And in some ways, I had.
At that point, none of my closest friends had lost a parent. They couldn’t comprehend the depth of such a loss — or why my sorrow turned to anger or resentment during the holidays. And I couldn’t begin to articulate the unexpected waves of grief.
Writing about the loss of her own beloved father in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott said it best: “Sometimes, when I’ve done something fabulous, I feel like a gymnast who has performed a flawless routine in an empty auditorium.”
Before my dad died, I avoided most funeral homes and memorial services. On the rare occasions when I did attend, I struggled to find the right words for the bereaved. I found it awkward to view a casket, open or closed. In retrospect, I hadn’t found a direction for my own life yet — so how could I look death in the eye and make any sort of peace with it?
But a lot of things changed when my father died — and so did I.
I looked long and hard at the self-centered goals I’d been striving for in my twenties and thirties. In the weeks and months after Dad was buried, I listed everything that had been important to him: home, family, hard work, honesty, and kindness. In his honor, I decided to recommit myself to the values he’d hoped to pass along. And, most important of all, I stopped taking for granted the people I loved. The road back to normal was long, but I regained my footing and felt whole again.
In retrospect, I hadn’t found a direction for my own life yet — so how could I look death in the eye and make any sort of peace with it?
To be released this month, Always Too Soon by Allison Gilbert offers words of reassurance to anyone who is struggling with the loss of one or both parents. Gilbert, who was parentless by age 31, discusses the stages of her grief in the book’s introduction.
“My first parentless Thanksgiving came two months after my father died,” Gilbert recalls. “I didn’t feel old enough to be responsible for Thanksgiving…. I was no longer somebody’s child going home for the holidays. I felt overwhelmed, and despite my husband and brother’s support, utterly alone. I was also filled with self-centered anger.”
Always Too Soon features conversations with more than a dozen celebrities who were willing to share their own experiences with parent loss, including Rosanne Cash, Yogi Berra, Mariel Hemingway, Dennis Franz, and Rosanna Arquette. It also includes moving insights from not-so-famous people who lost parents in the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 terrorist attacks.
It’s a book I’d recommend highly to friends in need of comfort — and these days there are quite a few.
Within the past year and a half, two of my former college roommates watched their mothers lose their long battles with Parkinson’s disease. Another friend recently answered a late-night call announcing that her father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Lately, visits to funeral homes and memorial services have become routine. I don’t always know the “right” things to say, but I do understand that my presence is important. I try to be the kind of friend I needed when my father died 14 years ago. I try to be honest. I remind my grieving friends that recovery from such a huge loss takes its own bittersweet time.
I also remind them that grief is a remarkable guide, if we’re willing to stay with it through the darkest places on our journey. We learn from our losses and grow stronger. Then we return to help each other heal. – Cindy La Ferle