On August 1, we moved Mom into a memory care facility.
That morning unfolded like an episode of Property Brothers, one of our favorite home improvement shows. I whisked Mom off to her friend Becky’s house as soon as I got her ready. Rocky and Devin went to pick up the U-haul truck and Cody and I started dismantling Mom’s bed. The boys packed the truck with Mom’s dresser, bed and chair. I loaded her clothes and artwork into my car and off we went.
When we arrived at her new place, we set out to make Mom’s half of her new room look like the bedroom she was used to at home. We worked fast, feeling the approaching count down like the suspenseful build up on Property Brothers. “Quick put the finishing touches on the room before the homeowner returns.” Devin and Cody, our own Property Brothers Team, rebuilt her bed and set up her chair and dresser. I put her clothes away and made her bed and Rocky hung her artwork.
Then I went to pick her up. I had not told her our plan yet. For quite a while, her capacity to understand or remember details has been on par with that of a toddler so I have learned to wait until she actually needs to know something before sharing it. This helps keep any anxiety she might feel about what is about to happen in check and saves me from having to answer the same questions over and over again.
I felt queasy though trying to figure out how to tell her the news. I repeatedly tried out different conversations in my head and none sounded natural. When Mom finally got in the car, she asked me, “What have you been doing this morning?” That was just the casual opening I needed to start the conversation.
Audrey, the Wellness Coordinator at the new facility had urged me to tell her that our house was being remodeled and that we all needed to move out during the construction phase. While I usually opt for the truth, Audrey explained that this story, a proven tool in her experience, would keep Mom from feeling like she had been a burden to us. I was anxious to save Mom any pain so I bravely tried the remodeling story out on her. I added that I was taking her to see her new home, a place she could stay that would not be noisy and dirty from the construction project. I was never good at lying to my Mom, even as a teenager, yet she seemed to take my answer in stride this time. Then she asked me, “Will you live there too?” Thinking quickly, I blurted out, “No, unfortunately they don’t take dogs so we will stay some place else with Tanner. But I will come visit you often and bring Tanner with me.”
Mercifully, we arrived at her new place just then and she was so distracted by us getting out of the car and walking towards the building that the questions stopped. I was also grateful she did not notice the huge Memory Care Neighborhood sign above the door and the shrill alarm that went off when I punched in the code to open the secure entrance.
The first person she saw was Nurse Janice, a woman who had come to our house a few weeks ago to do the initial assessment. When they met initially, Mom seemed to think Janice was her long ago friend from Charleston, instantly connecting and asking how she had been. I prayed for a repeat of that reunion. Janice gave Mom a big hug saying, “Mary, we’ve been waiting for you!” To which Mom responded, “where have you been? I missed you!” I felt tears of relief start to well up and quickly turned away so she wouldn’t notice.
Janice introduced us to some of the other residents including Carol whose claim to fame is that she used to work for, “Walt Disney, himself!” Although I doubt Mom remembers who Disney is, she responded, “ohhh can I touch you?” and instantly found a friend in Carol. We met Willie and Elaine and finally Margaret, Mom’s new roommate. I had secretly hoped for a roommate that could be a real companion to Mom but Margaret is non-ambulatory and not very verbal. In some ways, that has been an unexpected blessing. After a week, Mom still doesn’t think she has a roommate because Margaret is so quiet.
We showed Mom her room and took a walk around the garden. Mom was upbeat and happy and I wondered if I had deprived her of a full social life by keeping her at our house all of these years? Shortly after we arrived, the staff announced they would celebrate with root beer floats, which instantly had Mom’s attention. She practically pulled Jackie, one of the caregivers, onto her lap trying to hug and thank him when he delivered one to her. I couldn’t have hoped for a sweeter introduction to her new home. When I said good-bye she barely noticed, she was so enamored of her new friends and her delicious treat.
I held onto that picture in my mind for the next two days. I was asked to stay away for a couple of days to give Mom time to bond with her new caregivers. It felt like an eternity but I finally got to return Friday morning.
When I walked in this time, Mom was slumped in a chair in the TV room watching Jerry Springer. She looked up sadly and said, “Well I guess I can get out of here now.” Scared I had made a horrible choice to leave her there, I encouraged her to stand up and go for a walk in the garden with Tanner and I. She moved slowly and without any enthusiasm. We walked around a bit and then sat on a bench. That was when I noticed that underneath her blouse and sweater, she was wearing a man’s T-shirt with a big stain on the front. She was also wearing a pair of black men’s socks. Her hair was a mess. My usually pretty Mom looked awful. What had I done?
I looked for a caregiver to talk to about her strange clothing, asking as delicately as possible if Mom was perhaps taking clothes from other residents’s rooms? It seemed an impossible answer but I didn’t want to start accusing the staff of neglect. Audrey was off for the weekend and no one could give me a good explanation. They tried to reassure me that Mom was adjusting well but I had serious doubts. When I looked in her room, her pillow was missing; there was a strange raincoat hanging up on her hook and someone else’s slippers by her bed. Since her roommate Margaret can’t walk on her own, it could not have been her doing. When it was time for me to go, Mom seemed resigned to my leaving and just said, “Well I guess they will feed me here?” I left heartbroken and worried.
That weekend we had to drive Devin back to the University of Montana so I did not get to see her again until Monday afternoon. This time when I walked in, I noticed I was holding my breath, bracing for what I might find. Mom was in the same chair in front of the TV but she looked like herself again. She was happy to see me but not desperate to leave. She was wearing her own clothes. Her hair was parted on the other side, but I could live with that!
This time when we walked, she exclaimed how beautiful it was in her garden and laughed at the antics of the squirrels. She was upbeat in her interactions with the other residents and the caregivers. I was so relieved. She even told one of the newer residents in a delighted tone that she had lived there forever.
Since then, I have visited every day. Sometimes with our yorkie-poo Tanner, who is always a popular guest and once each with my mom-in-law, Sally and Mom’s friend, Becky. All of the residents want to take turns holding Tanner and Mom is willing to share. The caregivers are sweet and loving and all stop to tell me how wonderful my Mom is. They tell me they love her and I can tell by how they hug her, sing to her and talk to her even when they don’t know I’m watching that their affection is genuine. None of them apparently have any sense of fashion but I appreciate their loving attention towards Mom and am starting to give up my attachment to her wearing coordinated outfits. None of the residents is rocking any fashion shows!
I learned from Audrey that they have 4 of what they call, “shoppers” in their memory care community. These are residents who reenact the shopping habits from their previous lives by going into other people’s rooms, taking off their own clothes and trying on “new” clothes that don’t belong to them. Apparently one of them is a man named John and it was his T-shirt and socks that Mom was wearing during my first ill-fated visit. According to Audrey, he likely went into Mom’s room and took off his shirt and socks and left them on her bed. Another caregiver may have put them away in her closet, not realizing the mistake. Anyway, now that I know how it happened it makes me laugh, especially because Mom’s brother’s name was John and he was always a jokester. He may be masterminding the whole thing from heaven! I’m not sure which of Mom’s outfits this John tried on while he was “shopping” but the staff have to be on their toes because he has been know to wander down the hall wearing a fluffy purple ladies sweater.
Today when Tanner and I visited, the caregivers were hosting an English tea party complete with fancy China tea cups, scones and crumpets. Mom was much more interested in her tea party than she was in our visit. When I left she was reaching for a second crumpet and exclaiming to her new friends, “isn’t this fun?”
My heart is happy. I know she will still have some bad days. We all do. But she is surrounded by her new friends; the caregivers know she has a sweet tooth and they are all willing to indulge her; and while she may continue to outfit some of the other residents with her clothes, I don’t really think she would mind. She has found her new home. Maybe she is wondering how to break it to me that she doesn’t want to leave her new place?
As for Rocky and I, we are discovering the silver lining of sitting on our deck, enjoying a glass of wine and not having to worry so much about Mom.