The day I moved Mom into Assisted Living is still with me. It’s a scratch and sniff polaroid of a memory pinned to my forehead. Unlike other memories because of how holistically vivid it is. I remember every look, sound, and smell as if it were all happening in slow motion.
Mom’s blank and helpless facial expression in the moments before we walked in for the first time is forever etched into my mind. I still hear her words and definitely still feel their sting. At random times I even see the way she smeared her lipstick into an upside down state of Florida as she wiped away her tears. And the waft of cigarette smoke from the lady walking her dog in the parking lot as we got out of the car is still under my nose.
That’s all framed by the memory of feeling blindsided by all Mom’s emotion that day. By how upset she was on drop-off day. I’d done my homework and sought out as much advice as I could to make the transition smooth. We’d done intro visits and even some activities there, many a drive-by, enrolled her in the process of the packing and organizing of her things, and helped her socialize the move–an exciting new chapter–with friends and family. Mom seemed to be ok. She wasn’t thrilled, dementia was forcing our hand so it wasn’t a choice, but she seemed to be accepting. I thought I’d done everything right.
What’s The Opposite of Smooth?
But that day it felt anything but smooth. Whatever the most extreme opposite of smooth is, it felt like that. And as a result I felt this horrid combination of sadness, fear, uncertainty, betrayal, and guilt. That’s what I remember most. Maybe that’s why drop-off day is still the scratch and sniff polaroid of a memory pinned to my forehead that it is.
Now more than a year later, I can see that it was the right move. And it was a relatively smooth transition for Mom into her assisted living community. She tells me–with her words and her demeanor–that it’s not home, but it’s close. She’s happy, cared for, and not alone. I’m beyond thankful–and relieved.
I can also see that I’ve learned a lot in the past year. It was unexpected but I learned things about Mom, myself, our relationship, and caregiving. Here are three of those things. Maybe they’ll help you.
To see the caregiving forest for the trees
It was a loooonnnnng process to get Mom to accept a move, educate ourselves, find the right place, and actually make it happen. It was so long and emotionally draining for both of us that I (naively) fell into the trap of seeing the move as a finish line.
But now I know the move was just a mile-marker on the journey. I had become so entrenched in the weeds of Mom’s care in the years leading up to the move, worn-out and frantically plugging holes so the ship didn’t sink–day after day after day.
It was all stuff that needed doing. But it came at the expense of being able to just be with Mom–to love her and care for her. Mom’s move allowed me to step back and see the caregiving forest for the trees.
So now instead of plugging holes every day, I’m able (and needed) to focus on Mom–the person. Not Mom the dementia ship that needs holes plugged to keep it afloat.
There’s an art to caregiving
Yes, a lot of caregiving is instinct and reflex. You love the person in need of care and do what needs to be done to support them. But Mom’s year in assisted living has shown me that there’s an art to it, too.
Every caregiver, whether they know it (or admit it) or not, has certain fundamental attributes -compassion, love, self-awareness, selflessness, listening skills–things like that. The art is in how those things are put together, for a specific person in a specific situation. You know it when you see it.
The staff at Mom’s assisted living community are caregiving artists. In Mom and her dementia’s case, she gets down and goes into a shell at times. The staff at her community is endlessly creative, and persistent, at nudging her out of that shell. They’ve figured out the best ways to engage Mom and they do it consistently. And as a result, rather than feeling beaten down or pestered, Mom engages. Their artistry helps Mom live, really live (like Carol Bradley Bursack talks about here in her Minding Our Elders blog), her life.
I haven’t betrayed Mom
Feelings of guilt and betrayal were coursing through my veins on drop-off day. Mom was just so sad and defeated. As the person responsible it was difficult to reconcile those feelings, in that raw moment, with what I (thought I) knew in my heart–which was that I was doing what’s best for Mom.
But just as there’s a difference between expecting something will happen and actually experiencing it, there’s also a difference between thinking you know something and really truly believing it. And Mom’s first year in assisted living taught me that. So now I know, and truly believe, that I haven’t betrayed Mom. I helped her.
There will be more challenges and more to learn. But I’m hoping these nuggets make drop-off day less of a scratch and sniff polaroid of a memory pinned to my forehead.
After all, I need space for all the new memories we’ll make.
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