‘Why I moved 6,000 miles to care for my ailing mother-in-law’

Oct 05, 2020
Mary has experienced the highs and lows of caring for a loved one. Source: Getty

“It’s my turn to care for my Mum. You know I’ve been telling you this for months. This is something I really want to do.”

And that was the opening line from my partner of 27 years after putting a down payment on a house in Naples, Florida. I could either go with her, or stay in Los Angeles by myself and deal with things on my own. I decided to go.

Being a caregiver wasn’t something that I had planned or had hoped for. It just happened to me. I’ve learned quite a bit, but it hasn’t been easy. Erika‘s mom had a stroke in 2013. Aside from her memory issues, she’s in fairly good shape for a 91-year-old. She doesn’t complain, she doesn’t demand. She doesn’t do much of anything. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s just the residual effects of her stroke. A large chunk of her brain has evaporated.

Food, television, and listening to the standards are her main forms of pleasure. She still wonders if Frank Sinatra is still alive. Sometimes I tell her that he is. Because I volunteered for many years at the Culver City Senior Center in Los Angeles, I already knew quite a bit about the ageing process and the challenges of being a caregiver. It’s hard on any family member, regardless of the relationship that they have had with a parent.

Over the past two years, we have seen Erika‘s mom gradually decline. She is becoming more reclusive, sleeping more, and not really wanting leave the house. Her knees are shot, and she is very unsteady on her feet. Every day I worry that she’s going to topple to the floor. Her short-term memory issues make it impossible for her to retain much information beyond the previous five minutes. We can engage her momentarily, but then her memory flitters like a bad movie at the drive-in. At times she can recall the particulars of her past two husbands, but even those memories are evaporating. I try to come up with ways to keep her stimulated. Karaoke works. She loves the older songs, and can recall the lyrics vividly. It gives her a momentary distraction to remember the good old days and sing along with the tunes.

Sometimes we play a simple card games like Fish and Old Maid. Those are easy for her to comprehend and they give me some hope that she’s improving. But she’s not. I have purchased some children’s books for her, with print that is large enough for her to read. The plots are simple, and the graphics are engaging. Momentarily, they seem to give her joy. But then her vacant stare returns. I’m not sure where she is or what she’s thinking. Her older memories are fairly intact. But it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who rarely asks questions. If she does, she will often ask the same thing over and over again. But with my improv background, I just roll with it.

“Did you make this?” I can’t cook a thing, but I always say yes. She seems happy with that answer, and momentarily, I can pretend that I am a gourmet chef. If you just roll with her train of thought, that seems to work well. That’s what we do. There’s no point in correcting her or trying to make her recall the truth. I am grateful that her mother is still here and provides some semblance of company. But it’s hard to see a loved one deteriorate. Elders rarely improve. They usually get worse. Time will tell regarding her care. I hope I have strength and patience to continue.

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