In June, we entered quite suddenly the world of caring for elderly parents. My father-in-law had what we think was a stroke on June 6, and within a month both FIL and MIL were moved two hours north from their home in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, to a nursing home near our home. I chronicled that early story here on Cowbird.
They are both in serious decline, and the winter has brought a bout of pneumonia for both of them. While Mil bounced back pretty quickly with a round of antibiotics, Fil has struggled and also had trouble with dehydration.
They are also in a good place, and we are all grateful for Mother of Mercy Nursing Home in Albany, Minnesota. They can attend Mass every day, and when Fil was at his most resistant, he would still go to the rosary every day because, as he told me: “I don’t want them to think all I do is complain. They do some good things here; I just want to go home.” They both have dementia, but different types, and neither fits the Alzheimer’s profile. Mil has the more common and easy to recognize memory loss, while Fil can be very lucid and clear and remember even football scores, even as some conversations with him just plain don’t make any sense. His decline is more difficult to watch, because his level of confusion must make things pretty nightmarish.
Mil is in assisted living, but she spends her days in Fil’s room in the nursing ward proper. The staff love them both, and Fil has kept his sense of humor while Mil has remained incredibly sweet and helpful, rushing in to comfort other residents and push wheelchairs to Mass. The other day when we walked down the hall to get her mail and change the batteries in her hearing aids, she stopped to pet a stuffed animal cat in a resident’s lap, and the woman gave her a big smile.
I am amazed to find that visiting them is something I’m actually good at. I enjoy it. For one thing, I’m not attached to them being any certain way, or to any version of the past the way their own children can be. Whereas it’s hard for my husband to listen to his mother talk about how they had goats when the kids were small (she had goats when she was a child on the dairy farm), I am happy to go with it. I heard a very helpful This American Life episode about a man who was a comedian and very able to “go with” his mother-in-law’s dementia even as his wife, her daughter, struggled. They tell you in all the literature just to go with the story the person is telling, but it’s actually not that easy in real life.
For me, it is almost a creative exercise. An exercise in surrealism. The goal is to get through it and onto another topic without frustrating him. For a few months, actually, there were none of these really surreal conversations, but after the pneumonia they seem to be back. Fil and I had this exchange my last visit:
“You’re going to the fair, right?”
“I’ll probably go. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Do they auction them off singly? You know, or in bundles, those metal rods, you know the ones, with the prongs on the end?”
“Did you want us to bid on something for you?”
He pauses and thinks. “No, I don’t think so. Not this time around.”
I look at MIL, who is sitting in her chair with her head on her hands. Then we move on. I show them some photos of our recent trip to the desert.
We’ve been trying to think of ways to keep their brains stimulated. They are not puzzle makers or game players. My youngest sister-in-law brought in a Qwirkle game shortly before Christmas. It has been a lifesaver for my visits with Mil. She and I can sit at the small table while Fil naps and make a beautiful design with the domino-like blocks, just matching colors and shapes. It’s a challenge for her, and I’m going to take some of the tiles out to shorten the game, but we can fully interact as I ask her: “Do you have any red? Do you have any squares?” and tell her where to place them. So what if she puts down a diamond, a square on its side, instead of a square. But I draw the line at a starburst pretending to be a circle. She hogs the bag of tiles, and we have fun going back and forth.
I had a profound conversation with a friend at lunch yesterday. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and was telling him what’s been going on. He said, “How great that you have this chance to have a relationship with them.” I totally agree. He said he’d been thinking about people who marry late and don’t have the long relationship with in-laws that he has had in his marriage. I married into a family of eight children and much of my interaction with my in-laws has been in giant family settings. But these days I have them for a couple hours each week all to myself.
My friend said, “I have had a complicated relationship with my in-laws, who have mostly gotten on my nerves. But just recently I realized that the more I get to know them, the more I love my wife.”
That was a really moving sentence.
In some ways, this situation definitely makes one aware of what might be in store in the future. My husband’s grandparents also had dementia before they died. But also, it has relieved me of a lot of fears about dying and death. Encountering the lovely, caring staff and the salt-of-the-earth residents makes me hopeful about the care I might receive at the end of my life. Oh, it will be unpleasant, of course. We all hope for a brief illness, or better yet living until a spry 94 years old and then dying in one’s sleep. But if it doesn’t go that way, it will be OK.
This is the Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church. I think of this every week as I travel to MoM, Mother of Mercy. I think of it every week I experience the deep mercy of these visits, which goes out to them and flows back to me.