Loving the Elderly: My Story
I am helping an acquaintance for a few days by keeping an eye on her elderly mother who has dementia, while she tries to jump through all the hoops of getting her professional home care. I love caring for seniors, but sometimes your heart gets broken. My first heartbreaks occurred after taking care of my grandma and great-aunt.
Grandma and Auntie Marg
In the late 1990s my grandmother and great-aunt, twins who lived together, started needing lots of help. My great-aunt Marg was sharp as a tack to the very end. She was hilarious, very opinionated about politics, and fiercely competitive at cards and games. She never went easy on the kids or her mother (before she died) when it came to games, and that is what made it fun. When my kids were winning, it was because they were winning, and they were euphoric when she'd pretend to be outraged. Grandma was the same. Get the two of them together at the card table and you were in for a rollicking good time. My dad always called them the Dynamic Duo when they hit the card table.
Auntie Marg children loved more than anything in the world, and they loved her back because they always had her rapt attention. When Auntie Marg's son died on Christmas Eve at age 41, she was broken inside. Ed was her only child. She poured all her love and life into raising him. When I got the call of my cousin's death Christmas morning, I suggested we not worry about Christmas festivities. She wouldn't have it. So we went there as planned, helped them cook (this is when they were still very healthy and functional) and had Christmas. Every once in a while I would look over at her and catch her with a look in her eye that nearly killed me. She was perky on the outside but devastated on this inside. She was a stoic woman. Years later she told me she still hadn't cried and felt a bit guilty. But she wept on the inside.
Auntie Marg didn't mind growing old. I believe that is the reason she stayed so sharp. She so loved people, and as long as they came to visit, she was happy.
My grandmother was different than her sister. She was just as fun and competitive at the game table, she enjoyed the children as much as my Aunt, in fact, they would sit there together and watch their antics and laugh themselves silly. Seeing they had a captive, responsive audience, the children would go to greater lengths to make them laugh. As her friends and siblings started dying off, she felt the weight of the brevity of life.
When Grandma started losing her hearing, she got hearing aids because she had more money coming in and had better benefits than Auntie Marg. When I would come to visit and help them with household things, watching them try to carry on a conversation was somewhat amusing. I'd walk in and Auntie Marg would have the TV blaring. Grandma, seeing I'd arrived, came out to the living room to say hello. She sat down in "her chair" and yelled over at Auntie, "Marg, MARG, turn that thing off, I can't hear."
Marg would say "WHAT?"
Grandma: What? I can't hear you. Turn off the TV." Grandma would point at her ears to let Auntie know she couldn't hear because of the TV.
Marg: "If you can't hear me, put in your hearing aids." She didn't grasp that the TV was the main problem.
Grandma: How the hell am I supposed to hear you with that thing on. Turn it off.
Marg: I can't hear you, Marion.
I would finally resolve the problem by kissing auntie on the cheek, turn off the TV, and sit down. After we'd all visited awhile and things had lightened up we would have a good chuckle. I tried to help them devise a communication system. They really didn't get along too well toward the end of their lives, and it broke my heart every time I came to visit. When you can't hear each other, and your bodies are breaking down, and you are losing more and more independence, it causes friction. But they loved each other and they knew it.
A hard loss
One night Auntie Marg went up to bed. Grandma slept downstairs. Somehow, while getting ready for bed, Auntie Marg fell and broke her hip. She yelled and yelled and yelled for my grandma, but Grandma not only didn't have her hearing aids in, but she was also in a deep sleep. For the next 10 hours, Auntie Marg banged on the wood floor with her knuckles because her little voice was too weak. Grandma slept late that morning. When she realized Auntie wasn't up by 11:30 she went up and found Auntie and called the ambulance. She felt so bad, but it was not her fault. I went to visit Auntie the day before surgery. She was smiling, and cheerful, and not in too much pain. Her poor knuckles were raw. I kissed her goodbye and told her I'd be praying. Surgery went well, but she never woke up. She was in a coma for a few days then passed away. With her age, low weight, the shock to her system from what happened, and the anesthesia, her frail little body just didn't have enough strength. It hurt so bad to lose her because she was so delightful to be around. She had one of the tenderest hearts I've ever known. I miss her love, I miss her smile, I miss her laugh, I miss her political opinions (she should have been an MSNBC political pundit), I miss her zest for life and the way she loved the children. I never saw her angry, except when she and Grandma couldn't hear each other. I miss her enjoyment of people and life.
After Auntie died, Grandma started declining. She went into a deep depression. Losing her twin sister the way she did tipped her over the edge, I think. I went to see her about 2 or 3 times a week to take her to the doctor, shop, clean and love on her (my favorite part). I was good company for her. Whenever I think of her, I see us sitting at the kitchen table talking for hours. She was also very opinionated, but not abrasively. I loved hearing her perspectives because she knew a whole lot more than me. I listened. I loved on her as best I could. I was often riveted by stories of her life, which were sometimes hilarious, and some were shockingly sad. I deeply regret not writing down the stories.
She began to have mild symptoms of some sort of dementia. Her memory was intact for quite a while but she would start having hallucinations. One time I came into the kitchen and she said," I was just in the living room and I saw dogs and cats dancing in the middle of the room. They were having a lot of fun. Isn't it funny how I see things?" She knew, in the beginning, they were hallucinations and just enjoyed them. None of them were scary, just weird. Grandma was still smoking and I started seeing lots of burn holes in the carpet. She started burning stuff on the stove. There was a break-in that shook her up pretty bad, and all the rest of us too.
As you may guess, we put her in assisted living. This killed her. All her independence was gone. She hated every minute of it, but I continued to visit twice a week and talk to her daily. On Thursdays, the little ice cream shop in the facility (it was a fancy place) opened up. She would get a cone, and I would get a latte. We kept this date faithfully every week and it was one of the few things she really enjoyed and looked forward to. This was a top priority day for me. Unless someone was dying, I went. I didn't go just for her sake. It was a time I deeply enjoyed and treasured. I took her to the in-house beauty parlor, cut her nails, cleaned her clothes, went to the dining room with her and took her to visit one of the other residents, the one friend she'd made there. She decided that the food was terrible and eventually quit going to the dining room. I tried to keep meals coming to her room, but she ate less and less. She was furious about the terrible food. One day at the doctor he said, "Marion, if you don't start eating, here is what is going to happen. First, your legs will become too weak to walk. You will be bedridden." He went on to tell her the rest of the scenario ending with "...and then you will die." And that is what happened. I didn't know it at the time, but losing the appetite, eating very little, and the subsequent extreme weight loss is not unusual in the elderly as their bodies slowly shut down.
When she couldn't walk anymore her hallucinations were getting worse; she was embarrassed to have the aides bathe her; she was utterly dependent on everyone for everything. Her weight plummeted to the 80's, she was profoundly depressed and was forgetting a few skills. When I would call her on the phone, suddenly her voice would sound very far away. She'd say, "I can't hear you." I realized she had the receiver backward. I would have to yell to try to guide her back, but usually, I ended up hanging up. One time while I was there, I witnessed her answer the phone. She said to the caller "Just a minute." She'd take out her hearing aids because on the phone they shrieked. She'd leave the receiver on the bed and start talking to the person. She forgot she had to put it back up to her ear. Almost weekly she was losing the ability to understand basic skills like this. But we had good times together talking and wheeling around the facility in the wheelchair. I would tease her that I was getting speeding tickets in the mail.
Fond last memories
I do have two good memories of this time besides ice cream days. The first was the day we were sitting on the side of her bed and she said, "Oh, he's singing again. He has such a beautiful voice. Can you hear the guy next door singing?" I listened hard but there was silence. Rather than try to tell her she's hearing things and get her all upset, I asked her what he was singing. She began to sing the song, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." There was a glow on her face, a light in her eyes, but her eyes were also in the past, remembering I'm sure whatever was going on in her life when that song came out. I jumped in the last two bars. She was thrilled. Then she said, "Oh, now he's singing Daisy."
So we crooned in two-part harmony, "Daisey Daisey, give me your answer, do, I'm half crazy, all for the love of you." We finished the song with a long last note, then there was silence. Grandma was happy. Therefore, so was I. I hold this memory as the sweetest of all that we had together in my life because amidst the darkness in her life, she found utter joy at that moment and I had the privilege of being a part of it.
The other story is that one morning she called me and said her teeth were missing. She said she put them under her pillow like always. I was planning to come anyway, so when I got there I did the 20 questions. She decided that the nurse's aide stole them because she had been in there earlier in the morning changing her sheets. I called the lady in, knowing she didn't steal the teeth (ew), and after a long discussion she said, I'll bet its somewhere around here, I whisked the pillow and sheets up pretty vigorously. I looked under the bed, then the dresser, and sure enough, her teeth were laying way back under the dresser looking lonely and forlorn. The three of us laughed ourselves silly.
Eventually, hospice came in. I went to visit on the hospice nurse's second visit with her. Grandma was sleeping most of the time, only waking for a sip of water once in a while. My uncle was there and the three of us chatted. I kissed grandma goodbye and told her I'd be there first thing in the morning (I was going nearly every day now). I arrived the next morning at about 8 a.m. I went to her room and she wasn't there. The sheets weren't on the bed. My mind didn't work right. I assumed there was a logical explanation. I went to the nurse's station. I asked them "Can you tell me where my grandmother, Marion Colbo is?"
The nurse said, "Oh, just a minute." She came back and handed me a slip of paper with the name and phone number of a mortuary. Time stood still and it took about thirty seconds for me to speak.
"You mean she died?" The nurses eyes bugged out and she said "Didn't you know? Oh, I'm so sorry. Your uncle said he would call you. I'm so sorry you found out this way." I was too numb to cry. I told myself there was no need because I knew it was coming any day now. I went back to grandma's room and called my Aunt Carol and my Dad, both in California, and they had not been notified either.
My uncle had told the staff he would do the notifying and not to worry about it. So they did not call me when it happened in the middle of the night. My uncle didn't have a good reason, just saying he didn't have to if he didn't want to. I won't go into the things he did during her life at the facility, but just to say he is now estranged from the family by his own choice.
But it doesn't affect my memories of Grandma and Auntie Marg. There are still times when I crave to go visit Grandma. Whenever I have ice cream or a latte, I think of our times at the shop. I miss making her laugh and taking her a hamburger. Grandma, I miss you so much. I'd much rather be with you than going out for coffee with friends. I want to sing with you again.
A new opportunity
It was rather a bittersweet time and for many years the thought of caring for the elderly brought sad memories and I just couldn't be a caregiver anymore. I have had many elderly friends, and still do, who are well and mobile and I enjoy their company immensely. But care-taking, no way.
So, a week and a half ago, someone called and said "Would you be interested in helping so and so with her mother who has dementia for a few days until she gets professional care set up?" Strangely, without hesitation, I jumped at it. This little lady has different dementia than Grandma. She doesn't talk, except to say hi or fine on rare occasions. My dear lady friend loves Jesus, so we go out on the deck for Bible Study. I read a passage, ask her questions like "Do you know Jesus loves you?" and she nods. I ask her if I can pray for her, and she bows her head, eyes remaining open. The whole thing lasts about 3 minutes, but she smiles, so her heart is peaceful.
So now I am praying about whether this is something God wants me to do professionally if I do go back to work. The pain of the past is dimmed, and I am finding so much joy loving on this dear saint. Someone asked me why I do the Bible study or rub her feet and legs with lotion. I told them because I want to bring her pleasure and comfort in her last season of life. Someday I will be old, and if I have dementia or Alzheimer's, I don't want someone to just come in and watch TV and only speak to me when absolutely necessary. I want someone to touch me, talk to me - not at me - to show love, even if I am not able to reciprocate. I don't want to be considered a burden, yet I don't want to be dismissed or thought of as just some old demented and dying lady who doesn't know anything so why bother putting yourself out. I want to be cherished, and respected.
Most of all, I do it because the Lord has shown love and compassion to me. He commands that we do likewise. It is my pleasure. It makes me angry when I go to the nursing home to minister or hear of someone who has encountered an indifferent, cold, or even abusive worker. There is no excuse for treating anyone that way, especially the elderly. My message to these people is, if you don't like working with or respect the elderly, go to McDonald's or Target and get a job. Someday you will be old and need love and care in your last years. I hope you don't get someone like yourself. Shame on you.
I thank God for healing and renewing me and giving me this chance to care for someone in their twilight years, even if just for a few days. If only my sweet friend could know how much she blesses me.
I find friendships with my elderly friends at church and at the nursing home where we provide a church service more precious even than with friends my age. They just want love and companionship. It's uncomplicated, it's rich, and I can give what's been given to me by God. I would rather have a latte with a grandma at the nursing home than one at Starbuck's with friends talking about where we are going for vacation.
© 2012 Lori Colbo