I visited with Mom earlier this week. There is less of her each time I see her. I’m not talking about physical size, although she is losing weight now that she can’t feed herself and can’t graze off the plates of her tablemates, but her life is getting smaller and smaller.
This shrinking phenomenon started years ago when Alzheimer’s first made its presence obvious in her life. She’s never “lived life large.” She was too shy and fearful. She worked outside the home for 20 years, but the exposure was sometimes overwhelming, and she spent her evenings recovering in the security of her darkened bedroom. She and Dad traveled some, too, making one tour of the Holy Land and another to Germany to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau, but her social anxiety overshadowed a lot of the enjoyment.
After retirement, she and Dad moved to Carrollton, Texas to be closer to me and my family. She found security in routines, and ventured out to the familiar territory around their small two-bedroom home. On shopping day, she browsed the bargain racks at Marshall’s, Ross, and T.J.Maxx. She went to the library and then ended her outing at the supermarket. She enjoyed the greetings of the clerks and sales people she met, because they were friendly but didn’t demand anything in return.
As the Alzheimer’s progressed, the routine became less secure. The city streets and store aisles were no longer familiar, choosing books was confusing, and the grocery list was indecipherable. She gave up her independence in favor of the passenger seat for occasional outings and the safety of home.
As she and Dad slid down the slippery slope of dementia together, they moved in with us, and her world became even smaller. She enjoyed their in-law apartment, but having her in my home gave me a ringside seat on the heart-breaking process. Unable to read any longer, she spent most of her time sitting on the sofa, dozing or watching TV. She lost the ability to carry out simple tasks like setting the table and rinsing the dishes, and she needed help with personal things like bathing and dressing. She had trouble remembering people and events and often talked about me rather than to me. She was sweet and loving and mostly compliant, but as her world became smaller, my load increased. When I reached my breaking point, she and Dad moved into an assisted living facility near my brother, and the real shrinkage began.
Their apartment was tiny, but they had their own furniture and knick-knacks, and they had each other, so they were content. We tried outing for ice cream once when I was there for a visit, but getting them in and out of the van proved to be a negative on the cost/benefit scale. From then on, their world consisted of walks to the dining room and back and an occasional trip to the common area for exercise or entertainment of some sort. Mom still recognized Dad and Jim, and she greeted me with what seemed to be some recognition, but she called all the blonde, female staff members Linda.
In May, her world changed drastically when Dad passed away. We worried that she would fall apart, but in this case Alzheimer’s proved to be a blessing, and she no longer remembered her companion of 70 years. For a few months she thrived and became quite the party girl, greeting everyone she met with a beautiful smile that made her eyes sparkle and open arms that invited a warm hug. She needed help walking, but that was no problem since the staff loved her and was glad for a chance to spend a few minutes with her. In September, even though she had no idea what was going on, she was the belle of the ball at her 90th birthday party, and she kept everyone at our table laughing at the New Year’s party and at the photo shoot afterward.
Then came the skin outbreak, the UTIs, the pneumonia, and over 50 days in the hospital. She became too weak to walk, but her bright smile remained and another staff of caregivers fell in love with her sweet spirit. She didn’t remember names, but she referred to Jim as “my boy,” and she responded to me with recognition of some special connection. She laughed at Jim’s teasing and clapped and hummed when he played the guitar. But she was so much smaller than before.
She’s back “home” now under hospice care. She has a studio apartment in the Alzheimer’s wing. It’s large enough to include a couple of chairs for visitors, and she still has her own things except for the hospital bed. She has a Geri chair, a sort of lounge chair on wheels, and she sits in it most of the day. It makes it easier for them to feed her, it helps keep her lungs clear, and it allows her to spend time in the common area with other residents.
That’s where she was Monday when I got there, sitting in her Geri chair in front of the TV. She was asleep with one eye half open and one hand raised in the air. It was hard to rouse her, and when she woke up, her eyes were blank. During a couple of our subsequent visits, she was a little more responsive. One day she told me I looked pretty, and when Aunt Fay said I love you, she responded with I love you, too. She occasionally held out her arms to be hugged, but there was no strength in them and the smile was not as wide and bright. As I sat holding her cool hand and stroking her smooth cheek that belies her 90 years, I thought about what John the Baptist said when his disciples asked about Jesus’ new ministry.
He must become greater; I must become less. John 3:30
As she nears the end of her life, I wonder if Mom has a greater awareness of God. She has always had a strong faith, and even in her moments of greatest fear, she leaned on Him.
Yesterday before we left Aunt Fay asked Mom a question.
”Have you seen any angels?” she said.
Mom shook her head no.
“Would you like a band of angels around you?”
Before we left, we held her hands and Fay prayed that God would give His angels charge over her. As she becomes less to us, may He become more to her. Amen.