“Hi Mom, I wanted to tell you that we’re going to see you soon” I shared in a recent phone call with my 91-year-old mom Ginny who lives in memory care. It was the first time we had talked in five weeks. Her residence had experienced a heavy Delta variant surge which left many residents and staff either ill or quarantined. There were no visits and no calls because the staff was simply too busy to help residents use the phone. In some cases, members of the staff had just quit.
August 2021 and part of September were dark days for this assisted living/memory care community, but a recent e-mail had been sent out stating that visits had resumed and that they were “ramping up” activities and music and outside entertainment to “get all residents back to happy times.”
So as soon as we were able, my husband and I took the 3-hour drive across the state to see Ginny. A new automated temperature sensor sat on a tripod by the front desk. After registering our results with the receptionist, we each had to fill out forms with questions regarding symptoms and any recent exposures to Covid. With masks on, we were allowed to walk to memory care.
The first change I saw with mom is that she is using a walker now. For a long time, she insisted on using her father’s cane to get around, but it wasn’t sufficient support and she had recently fallen prompting the staff to offer a walker to use. Surprisingly, she had accepted that gift. I think she was tired of misplacing her cane and other residents taking it, not understanding that it was Ginny’s.
She was also wearing a pair of brown leather flat shoes designed with an eyelet pattern. They were shoes I had never seen and I know they weren’t hers. She’s always been a sandals or Keds tennis shoes kind of lady.
But after seven months in memory care, I’ve learned that, despite labeling everything, there is a constant shuffle of resident’s belongings from shirts and shoes to personal items such as glasses. Staff tries their best to keep things sorted, but it’s a Sisyphean task. I understand now that families need to let go of the idea that a resident’s belongings will be contained in their assigned room. It’s better if families focus on the “big picture” that their loved one is safe, clean, cared for and hopefully enriched or entertained on even a small level. I asked mom if she liked the shoes (she did) and I let it go.
As I was trying to straighten up her room, I found a bag of personal supplies in the closet and noticed something shoved deep inside. I pulled out 1,2, 3 and 4 of her cutest shirts along with 2 pairs of pants and a pretty green nightgown I hadn’t seen in ages. I’m quite sure she was responsible for hiding them, although I’m unsure of the thought process behind it. This is also a common sign of dementia.
I was thrilled to find the framed photo of a watercolor her dad had painted which I had mailed to her in August for her birthday. We had brought a hammer with us and hung it close to the bed. I had also bought a small throw pillow with fun Safari animals printed on it. It reminded me of the work of Sandra Boynton. She’s a wonderful humorist who is probably best known for her line of greetings cards published through Recycled Paper, but her work involving animals doing silly human things with silly human expressions has been printed onto calendars, wallpaper, bed sheets and more. Mom has always laughed at her drawings, and she did when she saw the pillow. This is always my goal.
Our next step was to guide mom out to the lovely outdoor gated garden with comfortable chairs in the shade. Although there is a small parking lot about 100 yards away, it’s still a pretty view with a large swath of forest preserve, open blue sky and clouds that float lazily by. I think it’s the best feature of this particular memory care location. Residents can safely walk in and out of the building at any time to enjoy the fresh air and Ginny is often found out there. We sat for over an hour chatting about whatever came to mom’s mind at the moment.
On the second day of our visit, we exited through the locked memory care doors to spend time in the assisted living common area to eat some ice cream in their ice cream parlor and sit in their beautiful living room. But something stopped me as I entered the room. I have visited Ginny four times since we moved her here in April and I have never seen a single soul using the living room. But when I started to walk in that day, I heard music playing and saw that the curtains were purposefully drawn.
And there in the corner were two chairs pushed together, an elderly man on the left and his wife or partner on the right. Sitting in the semi-darkness, the man’s right hand was on the arm of the chair and the woman had her hand laid over his. They weren’t talking. They weren’t moving. They were just being. The music they were so entranced by sounded like an aria from an unknown (to me) opera. I realized then that they were completely in their own private world, and I was intruding so I exited as quietly as I could and re-directed mom to the library space to sit.
I had no idea whether they both lived in assisted living and were using the room’s sound system or whether one of them was visiting and one was from memory care. I imagined that it could be their first post-Delta reunion; they remained in there for a very long time.
What I did understand was that it was clearly a special moment for them. Amid Covid and lockdowns and aging health challenges, these two people were finding old memories on a Wednesday afternoon; together again. They were enjoying each other. It was a “happy time” for them. It felt uplifting to me. I was happy that the staff had facilitated it.
It was tough to say goodbye because mom didn’t understand that we were “getting on the road” leaving. She thought we’d be coming back in the morning. I promised to call her soon. I left with some sadness as I continue to adjust to how different she is now, but I was also hopeful that this community has healed. I hope when I call that I will hear about some new happy moments they have created for mom too, until we reunite again.