32: Those Sparkling Irish Eyes

32: Those Sparkling Irish Eyes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Those Sparkling Irish Eyes

A Note from Joan

One of my best childhood friends from my hometown of Sacramento, California is Michele Dillingham. We were in each other’s weddings and were there for each other when our children were born.

Tragedy hit Michele’s life when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack at only 50 years of age. Her two children were very young at the time, and since then she has raised them as a single parent.

Years later, when her children were grown and off at college, Michele took on the role of caregiver to her mother and father as their health declined. Her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, which of course made the job of caregiving even more challenging. Michele lost both her mom and dad about 12 years ago, but her role as a loving care-giver has continued.

With me living so far away, Michele has made it a point to visit my mom at least once a week back in our hometown. Michele showers my elderly mom with love and compassion. It has been such a blessing for me to know that Michele is there on the other side of the country, keeping a watchful eye on my mom and exchanging wonderful memories with her. It has also been a blessing for Michele, who once again has an opportunity to make a real difference in the life of another through caregiving.

So often, providing care and emotional support is looked at as a burden. However, those providing the care reap many rewards as well. The smile on my mom’s face when Michele goes to see her really says it all. At 93 years old, my mom is dealing with dementia and no longer lives in her home. So she gets great emotional comfort from seeing a familiar face from the past come into the care home; it makes her feel like she is still connected to her life. There are no words that could ever express my gratitude for the time, attention, and compassionate care that Michele gives to my mom. I want to share with all of you, my friend Michele, a model caregiver.

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My mother was a real Irish beauty and always quick to laugh. She was actually half Irish and half Italian but she favored the Irish side in looks, with her dark hair, fair skin and those sparkling eyes. My beautiful mother was also a dignified and private person. She loved being with people and she loved to laugh, but all with an incredible dignity about her.

St. Patrick’s Day was of course always celebrated in our home, but perhaps the luckiest St. Patrick’s Day was the one when Mom fractured her hip. I know that seems odd and even a little cruel, but you see my beautiful mother also had Alzheimer’s.

Dealing with a parent who has Alzheimer’s or even dementia involves many different steps as the disease progresses. It is very difficult for family members to watch a loved one go through that, and ultimately the child becomes the parent.

My sister and I were like most others coping with the disease. There was frustration, anger, despair, and sometimes even laughter. My son still remembers the time we were all sitting in Mom’s living room and suddenly she said, “Where are my lights?” We all stared at her and she went on “These aren’t my lights—where are my lights?” Any family dealing with Alzheimer’s knows that these moments happen.

Imagine what it must be like for the person with the disease… to not know where they are or even who they are. It’s a scary thought. It becomes even more difficult when those you love have to be watched carefully so they don’t wander off, knowing that they would not be able to find their way home or even let someone know who they are.

Mom, however, didn’t want to leave home unless she was with either my sister or myself, and even then, the outgoing mother we had always known became more and more reclusive. On a few occasions she was hospitalized for one thing or another but she would become so agitated that they didn’t keep her long.

Looking back on that fateful St. Patrick’s Day, I remember how Mom fell. It wasn’t unusual for her to fall, but it was unusual for her to be hurt. As we used to say, she had bones of rubber! But this time she fractured her hip, and it immobilized her with pain too great for her to move.

From the hospital she was sent to skilled nursing and it was there that they quickly recognized that she had Alzheimer’s. Fortunately they had a wonderful wing that specialized in caring for those with memory problems. Mom wound up being there for the last six months of her life, where she was not only well cared for, but lovingly cared for.

Moving a parent to a facility or care home can be difficult for the parent because they are leaving the security of their own home. Mom would have been terrified if we had just moved her there, but because of her injury it was different, because the pain was so distracting and the people there were helping to ease her pain.

Mom remained bedridden because after the fall she never regained the strength she needed to walk. She had a lovely room, and in her mind she was in her own bedroom in her own home, which made her happy and was a great comfort to her. This not only comforted her but comforted my sister and myself as well. My lovely dignified mother was being impeccably groomed by other people, which in her case was far better than if we had been doing those very personal tasks for her.

Her memory may have been gone but the sweetness and humor remained with Mom, as did the sparkle in her beautiful eyes. Mother “held court” as everyone was eager to help her. For the last six months of my mother’s life, my sister and I were free to simply enjoy her, and she was comfortable and happy. Seeing her eyes light up when one of us or her beloved grandchildren entered the room still brings such joy to me. It was such a special time and a time that brought my sister and me to a new closeness we had never enjoyed before—a surprising legacy my mom would so have loved.

A fractured hip in most cases would never be considered “lucky,” but for my beautiful Irish mother that fall did make for a lucky St. Patrick’s Day, as it gave the last six months of her life the dignity and happiness she so deserved.

~Michele Dillingham

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