My phone buzzes. It is Mom. Again. Third time today. Do I answer?
Mom calls when she is distraught, when she has been walking the halls of the nursing home for hours, waiting for somebody to pick her up.
While wandering, Mom forgets she has a room and worries where she will sleep tonight. If I answer her call, I usually help her find her room, where she has slept for the past three months. It seems to bring some relief.
Or, she may question me about why she is trapped in the nursing home. How is it fair? What did she do wrong?
“You do know that I had a higher grade point average than your Dad in college,” she said to me one day.
Yes, I responded, I knew that. I also knew that she had the highest GPA in her entire college class. Glenda Geiszler did not get B’s.
“Yet, I am the one who gets stuck in the nursing home?”
If only college grades were the criteria.
The usual question: How can she get home? She readily accepts that I can’t come because I am napping. Perhaps she will walk. It is only eight miles. Perhaps she will take a cab, although they are non-existent where we live. She has no car, she laments.
I tell her to have supper first, as eight miles is quite a hike. Perhaps she will get distracted, I tell myself.
I tell her Dad visits regularly. She doesn’t believe it, as she has no memory of his visits.
Early on, we took pictures of the two together and printed them out as evidence. I captioned a couple of them “Dad visits daily.”
Two weeks later, I came into the room to find Dad’s face ripped out of the pictures and placed in a neat pile. My inscription was crossed out with a ball point pen pressed so hard against the paper it broke through.
In fact, Dad’s visits have tapered off because, while she welcomes them at the time, once past, they seem to increase Mom’s restlessness, desire to go home, and anger at Dad for putting her in a nursing home.
Mom basks in Dad’s presence, but when the end of the visit comes, there is no way to avoid the big questions: Why are you leaving and not sleeping here? Why do I have to be here?
Once, Mom handed Dad a notebook and said, “I want you to write down every reason that I am in the nursing home.”
At that point, Dad simply can’t take it. His departure is sometimes acrimonious, at least in Mom’s memory. Perhaps he says, “I have to go,” and leaves. But to that simple event, Mom adds details. He threw me in the ditch. He has another woman. He no longer loves me.
No matter how many hours the visit lasts, no matter whether they took a trip to Dairy Queen, or up town to the gas station for onion rings, or if they took a 30-mile drive to Mom’s favorite Chinese restaurant, Dad's departure is all Mom remembers.
The logic of Alzheimer’s is not logical: You never visit, and you abandon me when you do.
Another call from Mom. Dad wants a divorce.
No, he doesn’t, I say.
“Well, maybe I want a divorce!”
It was June when it became apparent Dad couldn’t take care of Mom any more at home. He was worn to a frazzle. Other options simply didn’t make sense. It was time for the nursing home.
We three kids did the deed. Sister Tracie flew home and spent two weeks dolling up Mom’s room at Fair Meadow. I took care of the doctor’s visits. Brother Joe moved in the furniture.
I wrote up and printed out lengthy explanations of what was happening, which Mom read until the paper was limp.
The first weeks, we visited. And visited. If one of us needed a break, we let the others know so they could “cover.” We did this, perhaps, to salve our consciences. The general consensus is that family visits to dementia patients aren’t always good, at least in their first weeks of leaving home.
Five minutes after sister Tracie left from her two weeks of non-stop care, Mom had no memory of Tracie’s visit. None. But boy, was she agitated and angry.
We experimented with not visiting. Sometimes, two days would pass without a call. What was going on? Was Mom happy? Was she waiting by the door for us to pick her up? Did she not call because she forgot for a time that she had a phone?
I stopped asking staff how it was going, as it probably wasn’t good. I was curious, but really didn’t want to know.
“She does have good days,” offered nurse Michelle, a life-long friend. I clung to that.
What humor there has been has been dark.
Mom called, her voice shaky with emotion. I asked her how she was.
“Oh, not good. I have lost my phone. And I have no way of getting your number.”
I pointed out that I had solid evidence that she not only was talking on the phone she allegedly lost, but must have found my number to call.
“You mean, I called you?”
“I wonder how I did that!”
Mom likes words like “evidence.” She loves crime shows. She reads with a detective’s hypercritical eye. As she pored over a note I had written her, she stopped.
“Okay, most of this is good, but I take issue with this statement: ‘Dad visits every day.’ That is simply not true.”
Another time Mom called, in crisis. Would she have a place to stay if nobody came to get her? I tried to direct her to her room.
“Oh, here! I have a list of names here! A big list!”
Perhaps the discovery of this list could be translated into a breakthrough, I hoped.
“Let’s see, here it says Anne S., here it says Gary W. Nobody here I recognize.”
Suddenly, I hear a voice: “Glenda! Those are my notes!”
Mom had commandeered the chart from the medicine cart.
During another call, I directed her to her room. Her computer is there. She often reads off to me what is on the screen, as if she is looking for clues to a crime—in this case, the crime of her unjust incarceration.
As Mom read this time, I recognized that the prompts from the screen were of a Windows variety, not the Apple type. Mom has an Apple.
Sure enough, she had taken a seat at the computer behind the nurse’s desk.
It is tough to find humor in Mom’s phone messages.
While at a dinner party, I left my phone in the car. Seven messages awaited me when I returned. All had arrived within a half-an-hour. They were nearly identical.
“Hi, Eric. Sorry to wake you!”
A good start. In our family, naps have always been sacred. The working assumption when we entered the house as children was that somebody was napping. No slamming doors!
Mom’s voice sounds firm, mildly apologetic, but in charge, just as she always was when well.
Then, things go south. She is trapped in the nursing home, walking the “aisles.” Dad is against her. “Why is this happening to me?”
The messages end with Mom in sobs, sometimes thanking me for being her friend. It is purest heartbreak.
The messages come in clusters. I now delete them without listening.
Each August, we have an open house at the family gardens. Our family sings and plays. For the past five years, Mom has added harmony. Hundreds of people attend. It is a big day.
This year, the question: Do we bring Mom out? Will she agree to go back to the nursing home?
We decided to try it. I took responsibility for getting Mom back to town. She sang beautifully. She greeted dozens of friends and former nursery customers. Hugs and love all around.
As the day wound down, it was time for me to do my duty.
I conned her into my car by saying cheerfully, “Let’s go for a ride!”
As we drove to town, Mom had no idea where we were. She had only a slight memory of the people she had just visited. She did remember singing.
But I could sense, as we approached Fair Meadow, increased apprehension.
Perhaps Mom instinctively knew she had been betrayed. She wasn’t going home after all. Her eldest son, the one she thought she could depend upon, was turning her in to the authorities.
I turned the last corner. Fair Meadow came into view.
Now, Mom knew where she was. Her entire body stiffened. She grabbed her midriff.
“This is where my stomach hurts!” she said, her voice quivering like a scared child’s.
The day was Alzheimer’s in a nutshell: Love, heartache and humor, all in heavy doses, all within minutes.