It doesn’t seem like so very long ago that my mom was frequently chattering, intruding on my solitude and private thoughts. She was always an extrovert. She liked to talk to just about everyone. I, on the other hand, am an introvert, like my dad. Now, she’s 87 years old, living in the assisted living section of a continuing care retirement community in Albuquerque. Our roles have shifted – I’m the one trying to engage her, this time through the fog of dementia.
Occasionally I get a glimpse of the old Jean, but mostly she’s very quiet.
Her communication patterns have changed over time. Looking back, I’m not sure when things started to shift for her. I definitely noticed it eight years ago after Dad died.
At first, before her cognitive abilities were appreciably different, she told me things I already knew. I remember getting annoyed with her when I was driving and she’d tell me which way to turn at an intersection. Or she’d pass on some other information I already knew and she should have known I knew. Irritating, very irritating.
Finally, I realized she just wanted to talk to me and wasn’t sure what else to say. I became more patient. And I learned not to disagree when she told me something I knew not to be true.
As Mom’s hearing and dementia got worse, she withdrew from casual conversation with her friends. When I visited her, I began to notice that other people didn’t come to the table to eat lunch with her. I think it was awkward for them because she didn’t have anything to say. She didn’t volunteer information. She didn’t ask questions. She didn’t comment on what other people said. She couldn’t engage in the normal back and forth of daily conversation.
Our phone chats became shorter and shorter. I tried to call during the times she was more likely to be awake, like early evening, but frequently I was busy during those times and forgot. It didn’t take more than five minutes when I did reach her, but these phone calls frustrated me (and perhaps her). It was hard to make the calls.
About two months ago, she stopped answering the phone entirely.
When I visited her in July, she was sleeping (or lying in bed) all but three or four hours a day. In talking to the retirement community’s chaplain, I found myself saying, “I think Mom is sleeping her way to heaven.” The chaplain nodded and said, “Yes. She’s done her job. She’s done it well. The only thing she has left to give is her kindness to the people who take care of her.”
And kind she has been. The staff love her. She’s always nice to me and tells me how much she appreciates me. She doesn’t understand my world, and she rarely asks me anything about myself. But she knows I have been a good daughter. She trusts I will make sure she is well taken care of and has everything she needs.
And so I will. I have her medical power of attorney. I know what she wants at the end and I will honor her wishes – as she sleeps her way to heaven.
Though I’ve been in the process of letting go for several years now, I’m heartbroken. While I know I’ve done all I can, I find myself wishing I could have done more.
Fran Parker is a health promotion specialist at Mesa County Health Department and a regular blogger for Healthy Mesa County.