One strong young woman

I’ll be the first to admit this decade has been far from my favorite. Overlapping responsibilities of caring for four generations simultaneously some years, while working full time can wear any girl down. Yet many days, I’ve been blessed with a beautiful gift. A surprise. And today was one of them.

With my morning mug of coffee, I read something my 24 year old daughter Nicole posted last night about her tumultuous teen years. She first moved to America and joined our family 12 years ago from Russia.

Becoming part of a new family and a new country isn’t easy. It becomes even harder when you make that change as an adolescent who didn’t start school in Russia until the third grade.

Nicole immediately found it challenging here dealing with peer pressure, while learning a new language. Dealing with parents again, after being in an orphanage for 6 years couldn’t have been simple for her either. And seeing my husband’s increasing memory loss only further complicated the other issues for her.

By the time Nicole settled deeper into the teen years, I was finding items under the mattress no parent wants to discover. There were nights of missed curfews, a couple of climbs out the bedroom window, and other memories that still make my hair gray just thinking about them.

Yet my daughter survived and has matured. She is a great mother to my little grandkids. And she’s developed into a strong, authentic writer in a language she’s only known for 12 years.

Last night as Nicole wrote about these years, she thanked her Dad and I, as well as a few others who’ve helped her along the way.

“Without you guys, I would have been one lost soul” she typed.

But I’m thinking I would have been one lost soul without Nicole.

I’ve become my mother

I started my first job when I turned 16 as a waitress for 95 cents an hour plus tips at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and delicatessen.

A weird combo for sure. Though Mom used to tell me, “Don’t complain. It’s better than plucking feathers at a turkey factory.” She had a good point.

About a month into the job, a customer kept watching me between slurps of Matzoh ball soup and her bites of a fried chicken leg with extra seasoning. Finally she spoke, asking me, “Your mother’s name is Carol. Right?”

It turned out that customer and Mom had traveled down the same institutional gray school hallways in a small town about 90 miles west of here.

The woman then broke into a grin and announced, “You look just like her!”

Horror upon horrors! This is not something you ever want to hear as a insecure teenager. Not that I hadn’t been told the same before. Relatives had confused my toe-headed baby pictures with Mom’s for years. And more than one elderly aunt had mistakenly called me Carol. But being told I looked like my Mom as a teen? I was totally devastated.

I put together a plan of attack to do everything I could to look and be different. I grew my hair long and I bleached my hair blonder than it was. I even purposefully broke out in pimples and gained weight. I started to pat Mom on the head whenever she called me her baby to make it clear I was 4 inches taller than her. And of course to make a statement I was nobody’s baby anymore. I was me!

But fast forward several decades and here I am with basically the same haircut as Mom in the picture. I’m thinking she looks better than I do. Her hair turned a beautiful brown as she aged and I’m going gray. And she has less wrinkles, too. It must have been the pink bottle of Oil of Olay she always swore by.

Tomorrow will be the fifth anniversary of Mom’s passing. In her final days she was forever smiling, just like she is in the picture. At her funeral I counted twenty friends and relatives who approached me and asked, “Do you know who you look like?”

I answered each questioner, “Oh, yes. I sure do.”

And you can bet I smiled proudly every time.

Time for smiles

I visited today with my husband and another resident who I believe is younger than me. It once brought me to tears to meet someone so young with memory loss, but I now accept I can’t make her illness go away as much as I’d like to. And I can’t make my husband’s disappear either.

Though my conversation with the woman contained few words as speech is difficult for her, I’m very happy I made her smile. And I know we enjoyed each others’ company.

Sitting on a dock afterwards, I felt blessed to see cattails in the breeze, a blue sky above and cool water below. Even the tiny trees with their early changing leaves, put me at peace. They provided a gentle reminder as I continue to travel through my 50s, I’m getting closer to the autumn of my own life. I know I won’t have time for sadness, but I’m confident I’ll have time in the years ahead to create more smiles for those with this challenging illness.

And that’s something I’m definitely looking forward to.

About me: A work in progress

I’ve been thinking I need to do something with the “About Me” section of the blog. The problem is I’m still trying to figure out who I am. So rather than be overwhelmed by the task, maybe I should just add a note on who I am this one beautiful August morning.

I’m a woman who’s had a lot of change in 10 years:

-I became a first time mother.
-We adopted a 12 year old daughter from Russia, who’s now given me the gift of three wonderful grandchildren.
-In rapid succession, in 4 of the last 10 years, I lost my father to Alzheimer’s, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and my husband was diagnosed with young onset dementia in his mid 50s.

Mom passed away last fall from her dementia. My husband is now in a late stage of his disease, speaking about three words. I don’t believe he’s known who I am for several years.

I work full time and currently have my husband in a group home, but that may change soon. I am blessed that he is is content. I’m working at being content as well. Writing and photography help with that goal and bring me much joy.

I have a couple of great dogs. And since I am focusing on who I am, just for today, I’m also trying to figure out how to get out the back door to walk them. I’ve had a big chunk of my 100 year old oak tree fall on my house this week in a storm.

But I’m sure we’ll find a path. We always do in life.

A very special picnic

I attended a picnic tonight at my husband’s group home. The families of the residents all brought something to share. I could tell Richard’s favorite was the the freshly baked peach cobbler. He didn’t want to surrender his empty plate. All the residents looked happy to see new friendly faces around and new summer foods to try.

The sun finally broke out, the humidity was gone, and a gentle breeze settled in. After we ate, we settled Richard into a rocking chair on the deck. I sat next to him. Richard gently grabbed for my arm, and then my hand. He hasn’t done that for many years. It reminded me of a family picnic years ago when he grabbed my hand, and asked my father Dad if he could have that hand in marriage.

I don’t know if he knew who I was tonight. I’d like to think he did. But I do know his simple gesture made me smile.

I’ll settle for that.

Simple memories

When my husband Richard and I first started discussing whether we should adopt a child 15 years ago Richard joked, “I’ll need someone to come visit me in the rest home.” I immediately told him I was not amused.

Looking back, it’s a bittersweet comment. Sometimes I wonder if he had a sense of what was to come.

Our daughter had only been with us a couple of years when early signs of Richard’s memory loss began to appear. Unfortunately she didn’t get to know her Grandma and Grandpa long either, before their Alzheimer’s and dementia settled in.

But I believe the memories she and I have of the three of them are treasured even more because of the illnesses they’ve endured, and the losses we’ve felt. We value every last detail of the many good days enjoyed with Richard, Mom and Dad. Yet we’ve also accepted the more challenging ones, and the different kind of memories they bring.

With the population of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and dementia expected to grow dramatically the next few years, as well as their caregivers, I hope more families and friends stop to appreciate the memories they’re creating each day. It may be as simple as a shared joke, a shared meal, or a big bear hug.

Keep these simple memories close to your heart, and hold them tight. You won’t want to lose them.

The visit

I’m careful as I climb the steps, then slowly enter the security code for the heavy front door. I’m even more cautious as I push the door open and walk into the group home, a place where my husband is staying right now while I work. Usually they’ll be someone on the other side, telling me they urgently need to leave. I may hear a sobbing 85 year old woman insist, “I have to go home right now and help Mom with dishes.” Or another, like my husband, might reach for the door knob but will not be able to communicate why. I often wonder, does he only recall the repetitive motion of turning the knob? Or is there still a distant memory, or destination in mind?

Traveling down the narrow hallway, several residents join me like a herd of sheep. We continue to move as a pack until we get to the living room. I greet those already seated with a nod, a smile, by name. I hand the M & M cookies to the staff for an afternoon snack, though one resident insists he gets his cookie now.

I find my husband cozy in a recliner and sit next to him, asking about his day. He doesn’t answer. Sometimes one of the other higher functioning residents will answer for him, but not this day.

My husband makes no eye contact with me or anyone else. He’s in his old world, a world far away. I continue to talk to him softly. I pat his hand. Rub his back. He falls asleep.

I quietly slip out, navigating back down the long hall, looking carefully over my shoulder as I enter the code to leave. But there’s no one behind me. My fellow pack members have dozed off as well.

I’m a little blue as I return home. I decide a nap is good medicine for me as well.

Support is hard to come by when you need it most

It scares me to think of the projected number of new diagnoses expected in the next few years of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. What scares me just as much, if not more, is the lack of support for the caregivers.

I remember a couple of years ago when a nasty flu bug was making the rounds of the the adult day care program, where my husband spent his days while I was working. My husband became ill there one morning, and when I arrived to pick him up early I was warned that this flu was highly contagious. They weren’t kidding. In a day, I became sicker than my husband. I hadn’t been that violently ill since eating a bad raw oyster on my French honeymoon 24 years earlier.

Exhausted, weak and dehydrated I did my best to keep my husband clean, fed, and safe. As he was recovering quicker than me, when I did rest on the couch I had one eye constantly open as he paced through the house opening drawers and cupboards, tearing up bills, and trying to open the front and back doors. Although I was fairly confident they were secure, I still worried about him getting out into the woods and lake at the bottom of my road.

I quickly realized I was limited as to who I could call for support.

Who would help me care for a 200 pound man who only speaks three words? My family here is very limited and my friends all work.

Could I realistically rely on them anyway? I found community resources just weren’t there either. The situation terrified me.

Once I recovered, all I could think of was what if it had been worse than the flu?

Racing to get ahead of life’s responsibilities

I get a little crazy sometimes with symbolism but I can’t help it, especially with this picture. I see myself as the horse, trying to move forward, trying to get things done.

I see the sheep as life’s responsibilities. I accept them, though I don’t always embrace them. My husband’s early onset dementia is one example. I so wish he hadn’t been stricken with such a horrible disease.

Filing taxes is another, which I wrote about in April when I first posted this picture.

Life goes on, and so do I.