In late April, we heard from my MIL’s social worker (she lives in a senior center with every level of care – independent living through skilled nursing). Apparently, Steve’s sweet mom had “eloped” – their term for leaving the building, going AWOL – and with a little investigation it turned out that wasn’t the first time she’d wandered (although always inside the building up to now). So the thought was that it was time to move her from her cozy, now-familiar 1 BR unit on the 3rd floor and into the memory care (secure) portion of assisted living in another building. There, the units are all just…bedrooms. Not-even-a-studio, 10×14, only-slightly-well-disguised hospital rooms.
The kicker was there were two rooms in a 10-room unit available and my MIL’s best friend was also being tagged for this change of location. Wouldn’t it be better to have them move together?
(YES. But. What if it’s US that are not ready? It’s May…Sarah is getting her master’s, then there’s Mark’s memorial dedication…then his birthday in June. Our emotions are already in a tangle. Nnnggggh! God! We gotta talk…)
It didn’t take me long to solve the “why” behind her sudden decision to depart: she was walking to the church just beyond the parking lot because she was certain there was a wedding to which she was invited. On some level, I realize I should have known – she was pretty fixated on the topic of the wedding earlier. And on another level, this fascinates me and tells me she was actually being pretty logical; unfortunately, this does not diminish the risk.
The conversation earlier that day had gone like this, as we sat with two others outside the multi-purpose room, on the patio:
MIL: Why are we missing the sing-a-long?
ME: It was cancelled, so we thought we’d come out here and enjoy the sun. Isn’t this nice?
MIL: Why was it cancelled?
ME: There’s a wedding reception. They’re getting it all set up and needed the space now.
MIL: Oh! A wedding! That’s exciting! Who’s getting married?
ME: Um. Let me look at the reader board. Oh, it’s some guy name Frank Wade.
MIL AND OTHER FRIEND: We know Frank Wade!
OTHER FRIEND (leaning in, confiding): He’s marrying a woman he met at church.
MIL: At church! She’s not from here?
Cue discussion among my MIL, her friend, and her BFF about the suitability of such a match, the insult to the many available women at the senior living center even though none of them want another husband, etc.
MIL: Well, are we invited?
ME: No, I don’t think so. You didn’t receive an invitation.
MIL: How do you know?
ME: (thinking: “I open all your mail!”) Um…you would have mentioned it!
***1 minute goes by***
MIL: When is the music thing?
ME: It was cancelled. There’s a wedding reception soon and the staff needs to set up in that room.
MIL: A wedding! Who’s getting married?
ME: Frank Wade, he’s marrying a lady from church, apparently.
EVERYONE (noticing a man walking a dog, we pause)
OTHER FRIEND: Apparently, he doesn’t know the rule that you can’t walk your dog out here. I’m not going to be the one to tell him!
BFF: I used to, I used to have a …a…oh, um…(she has trouble with nouns).
ME: A dog? Did you have a dog before you moved here? (it’s been 4 years)
BFF: Yes! I had a dog. I still do!
MIL: Well! Frank Wade! I wonder why he didn’t marry one of us! (laughs merrily along with the other two) I assume we are all going! Is there going to be cake?
ME: Nope, not invited.
*** 1 minute goes by. We talk about the fine weather and other topics, briefly.***
MIL: (fidgeting) What’s going on now? Is there something going on?
ME: Well, we had hoped to go to the sing-a-long but it was cancelled. There’s a wedding reception soon in that room. Frank Wade is marrying some lady he met at church. I think it’s a private —
MIL: Oh! A wedding is exciting! What time is the party? Will there be cake?
ME: I was just saying, I don’t think everyone is invited.
MIL: How do YOU know?
MIL (to Other Friend): Are you going?
ME: (changes subject)
*** 1 minute goes by***
MIL: Why are all those chairs stacked in the middle of the room?
ME (deciding to “join the story” instead of fighting it): Well, apparently there’s a wedding reception for Frank Wade, who not only unwisely chose to marry someone from “outside,” he also has chosen to not invite everyone to his reception….
I had giggled about this all the way home. But now I know I should have changed the subject more decisively, perhaps changed location. Still learning. And it’s still funny.
We got the move held off for almost two months and it was the right choice…and it was emotionally hard, and one more obvious bit of evidence that life’s hardships don’t stop coming. After the initial shock of the next slap wears off, the loss/sadness/anger muddle must be waded through and function restored quickly. I find myself trying to contain all the feelings through action, through learning, making lists…do-do-do to try and make it as painless and smooth a transition as possible. I am finding it hard to remember her when she did not have dementia.
We were told not to tell her too far in advance, but Steve and I decide we should start planting a few seeds (thinking “not that she will remember them, but maybe they will take root just the same”) a couple of weeks out, about construction and renovation and necessary change. She seems amenable to the idea of “having to move out if her apartment needs work.” Okay, we can work with that.
The day before the move date, I arrive in the lunchroom to find out that her BFF – who has just left the table – has already announced she is moving. I find my MIL and the remaining friend at the table eating pie and commiserating over the loss of the BFF and also congratulating one another that “at least it’s not us!” Steve’s mom says, “Moving is the LAST thing I want to do.” Yikes.
We walk away from lunch and I decide to wait only a few minutes before diving in – rip off the band-aid. She takes it better than I imagined and her BFF, who I brought down the hall so they could talk, is amazingly sanguine and – in fact – rather positive about it. I leave after an hour feeling hopeful; the next day, however, she has no recollection of that conversation. “What? What do you mean I’m moving?!”
Her dementia worsens a bit – she is very confused by all the change, isn’t sure at all where she is because she thinks all the driving she did with Steve’s cousin (who took her out for lunch and a movie while we moved everything) took her “somewhere else.” We find out she got very upset when she tried to leave the locked ward and could not.
The one good thing about dementia is you easily forget you are upset because you don’t remember what made you upset after just a few minutes, or a light distraction.
Steve or I stop by now and again to check in. She’s adjusting things in her room, moving pictures; she seems to like having pictures with Mark in them front and center (her blue memorial wristband broke a few weeks ago and we have chosen not to replace it). She won’t open the drapes, the room gloomy and dark, because she’s on ground level and thinks people can see in. We try to soothe her, pointing out the sheer drapes we hung that protect her privacy and allow her to enjoy the light. It’ll take some time for that to sink in, much like the fact that her new chair is also a comfy recliner. She does like when we tell her (every single visit) she’s still in the same place, just in a different room.
We start getting to know the staff. Nana, Barbara, Mary, Russell, Gifty. We find out they provide beer and wine – just a little! – and have happy hours on the highly-fenced patio out back. My MIL, her BFF, the 7 other “inmates” are well-cared-for, well-loved by gentle people with marvelous senses of humor and endless patience for them and for us. Grace abounds. I love that it’s OK to joke about the quirks of people who have virtually no short-term memory; Barbara has the BEST laugh.
Oh God, thank you that this wasn’t worse. Thank you for Steve’s cousin – whose own MIL had Alzheimer’s before we knew to help. Thank you for my MIL’s good nature which is still intact. Thank you for Steve and his family and that we are of one mind. Thank you for these people, for this place, for any silver linings.
At lunch on 3 successive Fridays:
ME (to my MIL): How was choir? (she and her BFF and another woman, Harriett, go to choir on Fridays)
MIL: Choir? Oh, that was today? I think we must have missed it!
ME (knowing we hire an aide to take her to choir): Oh, I doubt that. You probably went! (Elbowing her gently) Maybe the songs weren’t as much fun to sing today and you slept through it!
MIL (laughing, turning to her BFF on her right): Did we go to choir?
BFF: (looks at her blankly before turning to her right, to Harriett): Did we go to choir?
HARRIETT (dismissively): I was at choir; you two were there but in another room doing something else (she means they sing soprano and she sings alto – they sit a few feet apart).
HARRIETT (to one of the aides, looking along the table at me with some disdain) She sure talks a lot!
Welcome to one more aspect of The New Normal, where every day is Groundhog Day, and it’s even kind of funny. In the words of one of Steve’s favorite bands, The Grateful Dead, we have found:
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places
If you look at it right…