21: Mom and Her Foot Soldiers

21: Mom and Her Foot Soldiers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Mom and Her Foot Soldiers

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.

~Herman Melville

For my mom, life had become a never-ending war. She fought with my dad to take a weekly shower, they stayed hunkered-down in their house most of the time like they were stuck in a foxhole, and sometimes she had to map out her battle plan like a general in charge of troops.

“Sweetie, it’s time to go to bed. Now!”

“Ollie, you spilled some soup on your shirt. Let’s go and change it.”

“Dearheart, you missed a pill. Take it now, please.”

Unfortunately, my parents lived in Florida and I was stuck in the Midwest, too far away to help. Almost on the brink of collapsing, my mom was desperate.

We talked several times a week on the phone. I tried to fill my mother’s life — for the duration of each long-distance conversation — with the small, light details of our lives. Her granddaughter’s winning slide into home plate. Her grandson’s most recent trumpet lesson. The antics of my third-grade students. For those few moments, she could forget her problems as she chuckled and cheered.

The disease that was draining my father’s brain was incurable. Physically, however, he was teetering on the undefeatable. With every exam came the doctor’s announcement that he could live another ten or twenty years. Unless things changed my mom would not last that long.

Together, she and I brainstormed some possible ways for her to get some respite. The idea of a nursing home was dismissed, as my dad still had some lucid moments. My mom did not want to miss the occasional glimmers of the husband and father he used to be. We considered hiring a part-time caregiver. Luckily, an Alzheimer’s support group offered some wonderful solutions.

During the first few meetings Mom attended, a neighbor came over and stayed with my dad. Then the leader of the group told her about a day program. Once a week — on the day the support group met — members of a church cared for those with Alzheimer’s. The families got a brief break while those with the disease received lunch and a snack, engaged in singing lessons, and painted with a local art teacher. There was a nominal fee, but the rewards were priceless.

Gentle and patient, the folks at the day care program didn’t get frazzled when my dad dug in his heels. After they got to know him, they seemed to find my father’s little temper tantrums amusing. He’d go off on a tangent, and they’d joke with him as they put an arm around him and nudged him down the hall to where he needed to go.

During a summer visit, I got to tag along and sit beside my mom during her meeting. She bubbled over about how much it was helping her, so I wanted to see for myself what was going on. Surrounding a table was a collection of wives and husbands and even a sibling, all worn out, but all obviously grateful to be able to vent about issues they all understood.

Listening to their stories, I was struck by how strong these people were. This was supposed to be a time when they could sit in side-by-side rocking chairs and hold hands as husband and wife. It was meant to be a time when they could laugh over the decades of memories they shared. But now, instead of partners who supported and assisted each other, one had become the caregiver — and their shifts never ended.

During the years that my mother went to those support group meetings, she was guided along the path by those who had navigated it before her. Mom learned the ins and outs of insurance and nursing homes. She picked up on some routines that would make my dad more comfortable as he became less and less coherent. Most importantly, though, for a couple of hours every week, my mother could sit down, relax, and share with others who had the same struggles.

This she did for herself. She realized it was crucial she give herself permission to take time for herself. After Mom joined the support group, she said on more than one occasion, “If I don’t take care of myself, and I collapse, I can’t take care of your dad.”

While my mother uplifted and cared for Dad, her support group became her pillar, her army, preventing her from becoming a casualty in the war she waged against Alzheimer’s.

~Sioux Roslawski

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