John & I are blessed that – up until two years ago – none of our older friends seemed to be burdened with lives that were sad, empty echoes of earlier years. Both our fathers died in their early 60s, yet both our mothers lived full & vibrant lives up to their last breath.
The older people we knew & know through our community may walk a bit slower, may not be up for a set of tennis or playing Twister with their grandkids, but for the most part they remain sharp & interesting & engaged in life.
Up until the summer of 2015, the closest we came to a neglected oldster in our life was a client who was a maiden auntie; she grew up spending ALL summer at the family shore house & was sad when every year seemed to find her nieces & nephews arranging shorter & shorter visits to a place that was, to her, paradise. But they DID still get her down!
We only knew best practice – or darn near close to – families. Until Rochelle. Her life went into a tailspin around this time, two years back – due to remarkably lousy decisions by children who were well-intentioned yet seemed to believe, even before her diagnosis of early stage dementia, that being in her early 80s precluded her from having any weight in determining her path forward.
Months before her diagnosis, before the decision (made by her children with only cursory attention to her feelings) to move to her oldest son’s house, Rochelle had planned to take a granddaughter on a graduation trip to England. The two had delighted sharing tales of Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Benjamin Bunny & Peter Rabbit; as adults, they share a passion for Jane Austen. The trip moved forward, with the addition of another, older grandchild to lend a hand. For Rochelle, the dementia diagnosis changed the journey from a special time with grandchildren to a glorious last hurrah.
It was a great success! While the older grandchild visited friends in London, the two gals took a luxury coach tour of the Lake District, keeping eyes peeled for squirrels, rabbits & porcupines. It was as grand a tour as our friend had hoped.
Back home, things were happening in her absence. Her oldest had promised that he’d get started on cleaning out the house while she was away. It wasn’t so much cleaNing as it was cleaRing.
When she arrived back to her lovely home on four wooded acres, tired but blissed, she practically floated in the door, where she was greeted joyfully by her devoted Shih Tzu. She walked through her kitchen – she was home! Walked through the dining room – home! Walked into the music room – and the first thing she spotted was the wall opposite the door, the one that housed her extensive prized vinyl collection – empty.
Her treasured record & CD collection – gone. Video tape & DVD collection – gone. Most of her books – gone. Disappeared in the name of efficiency (“so so much easier doing it without Mom around to slow things down“).
It is hard to imagine that things could possibly go downhill from there, but they did. I haven’t the heart to write about it now – envision things going from bad to unbelievably worse.
How comforting it would be to say that the family learned, but they seem almost invested in not seeing how their actions contributed to their mother’s sharp decline. Not seeing they could have done anything differently, they continue along their grief-strewn way, oblivious of the devastation left in their wake.
As far as John & I can see, the ONLY constructive thing that has come out of what feels like a never-ending heartbreak is that we’ve experienced the worst practices situation that had always eluded us. Where Rochelle had been one of our sustaining clients, we were dropped by the family when we spoke out as advocates; she’s now a cherished friend visited visit once a week, whisked (with sweet pooch) out for a drive & lunch, then back for a classic video.
John & I are currently between clients (translate – little income at the moment), but we consider what’s spent on lunch & movies to be priceless if it gives a friend options choices FREEDOM – she chooses when to eat, what to order & which video to watch. Her joy at those simple pleasures is a priceless reminder to us of the many things we take for granted that she treasures as rare & empowering.
If I had three wishes, one of them would be to sit her children down & get them to understand that what they did in the name of efficiency caused deep damage. From the moment she saw that entire wall of empty shelves, Rochelle knew she no longer had control over her own life. In an instant, she gave up.
In the place of the woman who had readily shared her desires & hopes, Rochelle became someone who agreed with whatever was suggested, however ill-conceived or wrong headed. She stopped caring about anything other than her dog & she only has her from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon.
Her apathy was brought home when we reconnected this past winter, having heard she was now in a senior residence. Her physical therapist confided. “In all the months I’ve worked with Rochelle, she’s never shown any motivation to improve.”
Terrible damage was done in the name of efficiency. More damage is being done because of supposedly adult children who seem to care less about their mother’s well being & more about assuring themselves they know exactly what to do in a situation they’ve never face before that has brought countless others to their knees.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe they are afraid of feeling vulnerable, about admitting they don’t know, that they need to reach to an astonishingly wide range of others to get a handle on the one they claim to love so much.
That might not feel efficient to them, but of how much more effective it would be!