We have some news. I’ve been away from my computer for a week—up with mom and dad—thanks for being patient with me. A week ago Thursday, Mom moved into Harbor Care, the memory care building in their retirement community. Dad still lives in the cottages, just one block away, and visits daily. I’ve been visiting late mornings or early afternoons, every other day since it’s a 40-minute drive there for me. Yesterday she and I did a spa day together and had lunch. Family eats for free at Harbor Care!
At first, they asked us to stay away for a few days, so that she could bond with her new friends and caregivers and adjust to her new routine: hardest 4 days of my life. My heart felt like a stone within my chest and I cried if the wind blew the wrong way. I’ve since learned that dad snuck in about 10 times to check on her from a distance. 😉 However, before you get too sad about Mom’s move, listen to what happened this week. From day 1, Mom clearly adored her new digs. She’s been noticeably improving by the day this week. She is talking again (her new friends are chatty and often talk nonsense mixed in with clarity, and we think it’s making her comfortable again with at least trying to speak and not minding nonsense so much). She is laughing and smiling more. She’s even back to recognizing herself in the mirror and using it to adjust her hair instead of thinking that it’s a window with friends on the other side. This was the last thing any of us expected—because it’s always the horror stories that you hear about—so it’s almost unbelievable. But our truth is this: surrounded by friends, even here with late stage Alzheimer’s, mom is thriving at the moment.
Despite her disease, Mom is young and relatively physically fit. Where she lives now is beautiful: they have gardens to stroll through and look out into when the weather is cold, two big activities rooms, 3 rooms that families can use to have private meals or big family celebrations, plus a big TV room with a huge stone fireplace that’s always on now that it’s cold. Because of her disease and her own amazing nature, she only sees the beauty in the place—she misses most of the sadness-inducing things that we see, such as railings along all the walls, nurses stations, and a few very old people in rooms who can barely move anymore. There are 40 residents and what I’d guess is about 25 people there caring for them round the clock (~5 caregivers, 2 nurses, 3 fun activities people, maybe 3 laundry and cleaning staff, 3 front desk staff, many aides/orderlies, a hairdresser in the hair salon who was already mom’s friend, a nutritionist, and the kitchen staff). The place is bright and decorated to look like home (big windows, cool wardrobes, decorated shadow boxes with their names on them at their doorways, and some rooms even have white picket fences and brightly painted mailboxes outside of them). Everyone loves mom. She is almost always happy and the older ladies think that she and I are beautiful and tell us that repeatedly: so good for the ego! The staff tells me every day that her laugh is infectious.
Mom has a new posse of friends: about 5 of the women are younger and relatively fit, like mom, and all of them are far more verbal/talkative than mom is. Two of them took her under their wing immediately. So, every morning they come get her, go for walks around the big circle that the building was built in, go to exercise time together, go to coffee/tea/hot chocolate together, eat meals together, go to arts and crafts and readings and other activities together, and to the singalongs. The big TV room with big fireplace is just across the hall from mom’s room. After supper, they all gather there and watch movies, usually musicals, and they sing together. She is rarely in her own beautifully decorated room that we spent so much time to make welcoming! And we couldn’t be happier about that.
Mom still recognizes us and loves to see us. I just did a spa day with her yesterday: we did lotion hands, lotion feet, and green clay masks on our faces, which made her laugh out loud for half an hour. Dad pops in to visit some mornings and give things/tips/advice to the staff, and he has supper with her most evenings and sometimes stays to watch old movies with them. So, while it still hurts us to not have her with us all the time, we’re still being healed by her. She’s still being our rock and our leader. We are SO DAMN LUCKY. Even with late stage Alzheimer’s disease, she’s amazing. A decade and a half in, she still says “I love you” with a twinkle in her eye, like always. Words fail.
The staff recommends to us that we not take her out for 3 to 4 weeks, to allow her to really fully get that this is her home and to adjust to their remarkable routine, so we’re just visiting her there at the moment. But she’s doing so well that I plan to still take her out for tea/coffee and walk with her over to the assisted living building now and then to visit friends. And we hope to bring her down to our house for visits for these next two holidays. If she continues to improve or stay the same, she’ll definitely be able to do our house for Thanksgiving and Christmas again this year. This is shocking to us, as she’d really gone downhill fast across the past 6 months: more angry and confused than happy, thinking we were abandoning her when we sat at the table to play cards, talking to the people behind the mirror, etc. She knew what we didn’t know: that she needed a larger, round-the-clock community of peers/friends/activities/support. She is magic. We are the daughters/spouse/siblings/friends of a magical being. She is clearly where she needs to be now: she’s among peers again and supported by cool women caregivers and nurses–round the clock–and she’s totally loving it! Every person is different, so maybe a place like Harbor Care isn’t right for everyone, but it’s clearly right for her.
I hope you’ll come visit as often as you can (and as soon as you can, since this disease does progress inevitably). And if you can’t, but you want to send her something, here’s what’s appropriate as a gift for mom now: upbeat cards, photos (especially photos from her youth and from key moments in life such as your favorite trip together or the birth of your kid or the best party you ever had together), paper wall decorations such as holiday decorations (no nails in the walls here), fun stickers that she and I can stick on her mirror or elsewhere, costume jewelry bracelets (she loves to show her bracelets to her friends and family), or a stuffed animal (she likes dogs, cats, and sea creatures). Another fantastic gift would be a gift for her caregivers—like a bouquet of flowers for the caregiver office or a gift card to Starbucks or Whidbey Coffee. These folks do life-saving, amazing work. They help her get dressed in the morning, help her bathe and get ready for the day, help her make her bed and find her glasses, do her laundry, make sure she takes her vitamins and medicines, smile and hug her and say “Hi Linda!” whenever they see her all day, help her find her way to activities and social gatherings, help her get ready for bed, and they even sit with her until she falls asleep right now. They’re warm and kind, professional angels. A gift to them IS a gift to Mom now. They are family, now, too, and we’re so very lucky to have them in our lives. Gifts can be sent to dad or to us, and we will deliver them on your behalf.
Thank you for your unwavering love and support of our family.
We love you too.
– Linda and Jim, Lori and Daniel, Jen and Cam and Jocelyn, and Eva, Batman, Joe, and Bella