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(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

My dad’s parents lived well up until their last few years and they lived long—both until 92. I didn’t know how lucky I was to have grandparents who were active and independent—even into my late 20s—before old age finally caught up with them. Before that they made annual car trips halfway across the country to visit their relatives while also being able to drive themselves to watch our sporting events or to come stay with us. Granddad didn’t retire for the final (his third) time until he was in his mid-80s.

Although their own family was small—just my dad and our family—they had a large circle of extended family members and old friends who they always made sure to see. Their best times in old age were spent visiting with these people—something I thought was B-O-R-I-N-G. What I didn’t see then was how they got together with those in their circle, even during hard times. They loved to see new babies or talk about good times, but where they shone was visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes and attending funerals.

I have never been one of those people who walks into a nursing home at ease—though it breaks my heart that so many people are living in bodies and minds that are failing them, I am also afraid of approaching and interacting with them—as if somehow it’s all about me and my discomfort and not theirs. This despite the fact my grandparents brought me to visit in a nursing home often in my younger years because one of their (our) relatives lived there much of her long life after an early head injury. Thanks to them I at least understood that old age didn’t always look like the independence Granddad and Grandma maintained—and I witnessed what faithful commitment to loved ones through hard times looked like.

When my grandmother finally ended up in such a place in the final two years of her life, it was hard for me to see her that way in that space. I didn’t have to face my discomfort too often because I lived far away busy raising toddler twins, but in those years while my grandma declined, my father kept up the good visiting example set before him by his parents.

Later as my own mom descended deep into Alzheimer’s, I moved her into memory care. I had to learn to override my discomfort in order to visit her most days, but I did. And when you visit someone in memory care, you visit many other people beside your own loved one. I wouldn’t say I grew relaxed, but I could reach out to the other (mostly) women who I met there—people who I could see as individuals hanging onto who they were by a slim thread and people who needed to know they were not alone in whatever scary lack of understanding their own minds exhibited. Like my grandparents and father before me, I held hands and talked.

Now, four years since my mom has been gone, we are back to visiting my husband’s mother. A fracture of the femur and subsequent hip surgery sent her to a physical rehabilitation center, but it is an inability of her mind to absorb all the instructions that has finally sent her into a skilled nursing center—aka nursing home—to see if she can recover enough to walk back into her home. Once again we are confronting the frightening realities of people whose bodies and/or minds do not work as they should—including hers. But, still, we hold hands and talk.

My grandparents taught me how to do this—I don’t know if they were ever afraid or sad or tired of going when they went to see people, but they just went and visited. That’s what they did. I had no idea how brave they were to do so year after year for so many people and to keep visiting until they visited one last time for the final goodbye.

Visiting someone in a care facility is hard for me but I have to remind myself how much harder it has to be to be a person at the mercy of failing bodily systems away from my home and those whom I love. God bless the workers who care for our loved ones in our absence, but may we never forget how much power there is in spending our own time with those loved ones who long for who and how they once were and how we can give them a connection to the lives they have led outside their confinement.

I used to think my grandparents’ use of the word visiting spelled B-O-R-I-N-G, but now I know it spelled L-O-V-E. Now, that was living well.

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(c) 2012 Sherman Lambert

(c) 2012 Sherman Lambert

Though I have the occasional nightmare, what I have more frequently are what I call stress dreams—dreams that are more like nighttime anxieties on daytime themes. Mostly I dream of not getting to places on time or of misplacing important items or not being able to find where I’m supposed to go—you know, things like missing flights or not being able to find my classroom or misplacing whatever it is I need to do what comes next. I’ve always made my flights and found my classrooms, and even though I have misplaced things from time to time, still my days are not nearly as stressful as these dreams. I’ve never thought of these dreams as anything more than an over amplification of my desires to be responsible—until today.

Last night’s dream was slightly different because it involved experiencing these sorts of anxieties while visiting a dementia care center. As I shared the dream with my friend Lenny who, like me, lost her mother to Alzheimer’s, and who, unlike me, is also guiding a father with dementia, she said, “Oh my gosh—you just got an insight into what people with dementia must be thinking and feeling.”

Talk about raising the stress level on my lifelong stress dreams. But really, with that insight, no wonder I found last night’s dream particularly upsetting—and it wasn’t even about my having dementia.

What the dream did do was bring me back to those days when my mother was trapped in her increasingly unreliable mind—and essentially trapped in her care facility. Now mind you, this was the place where the well-designed purpose-built setting and the wonderful caregivers helped her to relax into where she was and make it her home. She loved being around the people who provided her care and, unlike so many, did not need to be coaxed into eating the well-cooked meals. Though I can’t speak for how she felt about the betrayal of her own mind, I can say that she seemed much calmer and lost much of her agitation in that safe space. This, however, was not true of everyone.

When you visit your loved ones in those settings, you begin to know and reach out to the other residents. Often you thank God that it isn’t your mother who knows her name but who has no idea how to find her room—every time you visit. Or that it isn’t your mother who worries out loud about “being naughty” and who begs for forgiveness in one breath and then tells you you are going to hell in the next. Thank goodness there are others who have more good moments than bad.

When your mother’s music is silenced, you sing hymns with someone else’s mother. You listen to another woman describe how the Vienna of her youth is the only place where you can find the best schnitzel. You know to be thankful when the woman who has not been very nice to your mother all of a sudden relaxes and smiles—because your teenaged son has such nice hair. You do your best to meet these people in their realities—unless, of course, that involves agreeing that there can be no redemption for you or the other residents.

The amazing thing is that after awhile you start to lose much of your fear of visiting your mother in this condition in that place where everyone is lost or has lost something. You are in awe of the love and kindness shown by those who work with the lost day in and day out. And, if your mother only sleeps while you hold her hand, you chat with the other residents and the staff who also have social needs.

So my dream didn’t exactly start out stressful. I talked to residents and provided help, if needed. Staff members came out and said, “I haven’t seen you in awhile.” Then my mom found me—she was wearing that pink shirt of hers—not that pink was her color, but no doubt she had bought it because it was on sale. We sat together, me with my arms around her, as if she were a child, and rested into one another. Then she left to take dinner with the other residents.

That’s when the stress began. Where was the bathroom? Did they change the colors on each residential section or had they also remodeled them? I had to leave, but first needed to put away all the supplies I had pulled out. Plus, where did they all belong? And then where was the bag I brought with me? Where did I leave it and did one of the “shoppers” (what people with dementia are called when they tend to take off with things that don’t belong to them) find it? And if I didn’t find the bag, how was I going to get to where I was supposed to be? With so much to worry about, I just couldn’t find my way to the door even though it was way past time to leave.

Oh, Lenny was right—those must be the sorts of thoughts that run through the minds of those with dementia. What a nightmare for them.

Thank goodness I was only dreaming—let this be a wake-up call to live well now and to quit stressing out over minor details.

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