Approaching the not-so golden years

Well, I see that five people have viewed my blog today already, perhaps thinking I might post something on my birthday, and I thank those five loyal people, whoever you are, first, for giving me the benefit of the doubt, and secondly, for inspiring me to actually post something.

It is my birthday, and I am spending it in Colorado in the company of my son and his family, which includes a new grandchild, Timothy, only two-and-a-half weeks old and his big brother, two-year-old Willie. They are handsome, healthy, active little sleep-bandits, and I am delighted to be spending my birthday with them and their parents, sleep deprivation or no. Nothing beats the unrestrained hugs and kisses of a two-year-old, the foot races down the sidewalk, or nosing a newborn’s soft head and watching him surrender to sleep in your arms. These are the experiences whose remembrance I hope will sweeten my “golden” years, a subject that is often on my mind these days, especially after I have visited my parents. Because, frankly, based on my observations of them, the golden years appear to suck big-time.

Dad has yet to come to terms emotionally with the fact that Mom can’t live at home with him, let alone cook his meals, do his laundry and be the foil for his acerbic wit. This has made him even more morose and negative than usual. And, as he has always said about his own mother, “you can tell her [him] from a mile away, but you can’t tell her [him] much.” Every time I see my dad he tells me how much it breaks his heart when he visits Mom at the assisted-living home and sees that she can’t carry on a conversation or understand much of what he tells her. (“Poor Mom, she’s just kind of out in space. I told her about her brother dying, but that just bounced off of her.  It just tears me up. But, what are you going to do? At least she’s comfortable.”) She has been there for 15 months now, and she has dementia (a word Dad can hardly bring himself to pronounce). What does he expect? I gently suggest that accepting her reality and trying to meet her there could make it less painful for him. Yet, he continues to try to interact with her the way he always has and ask her to respond to questions that involve remembering (how she slept, what she ate, etc.) He also tells me how depressing the place is (it is quite cheery, actually) and how much he admires the ladies that work there (“that’s tough duty; I couldn’t do it–it would drive me nuts”). I point out that Mom is doing well there, she’s well taken care of, she’s content–that’s all we can hope for at this point. He agrees, and then tells me again how awful it makes him feel. He’s a broken record, and the needle has worn a groove so deep it can’t be jolted out. I’m afraid the only fix will come when the record player winds down completely, and he seems to be readying himself for that moment, if not courting it.

“There are worse things than dying,” Dad told my mom’s doctor the other day, after she suggested we might want to start getting Hospice involved with my mom’s care. Not sure if he was referring to his own agony, Mom’s impaired state, both, or the recent sad demise of friends and family members. Living long enough to witness the decline of and bury the people you love is certainly one of the least appealing aspects of aging.

On the other hand, my dad does take delight in his great-grandchildren and relishes receiving news and photos of them, although visits are few and far between, and he’s never even met the Colorado kids. My mom responds almost lucidly and coherently to photos of “those very cute little kids,” but has no idea who they are or who they belong to. Seeing their photos and hearing me talk about them (as if she understood) seems to relax her and release natural and appropriate verbal responses in her. I’m not at all sure she even knows who I am anymore (another notion that sends my dad into the depths of sadness and denial whenever I honestly answer his post-visit inquiry, “But, she knew who you were, didn’t she?”). But, she likes me, and happily rode in my car to her doctor’s appointment, chatting nonsensically the whole way. When I told her my name is Lynn, she perked up as if that name actually rang a bell somewhere in the recesses of her fractured memory. I take solace in that glimmer of recognition, while for Dad it’s just another reason to despair.

So, on my birthday, I’m thankful to turn 61 instead of 84 or 85 (Dad and Mom’s next respective birthdays) and still be able to cope with life’s vicissitudes fairly well and thoroughly enjoy its gifts in the form of dear friends, healthy grandchildren, loving and successful children, siblings that are also my best friends, a spouse that is still the love of my life and my rock, and (knock on wood) my own good health. The so-called golden years can take their sweet time, thank you very much.

The language falters…

There’s a lot of linguistic stuff happening in my family lately. Some of it is good, fantastic even, like the other day when my three and a half year old grandson’s eyes opened wide upon spying my cleaning lady swiping at cobwebs with a telescoping duster, and he said, “Wow. She doesn’t even need to use an arterial handler to reach up high.” Arterial handler, material handler–whatever. I love listening to him create and use language. New words stick to him as lint to Velcro. He rolls them around in his mouth, chews them up, savors them and digests them to nourish his rapidly expanding vocabulary. At times, words tumble out of him faster than his tongue can handle, and he stutters as he struggles to order his thoughts and put them into words. And, the marvelous part is that he is able to do just that with every-increasing proficiency and complexity. His one-year-old brother is developing his oral language skills mostly by shrieking so far, but also yelling his big brother Ben’s name (“Ba!”) as he crawls around after him or whenever he hears Ben in another room. Likewise, his 15-month-old cousin gleefully points out and declares, “Da!” at every sighting of a dog, large or small. I’m sure they will soon be wowing their grandma with their linguistic prowess as well.

 

Then, there’s my mom. An Alzheimer’s type dementia has been slowly but surely robbing her of her linguistic proficiency for the last eight years or so, and the decline has been particularly striking and heart-wrenching in the last six months. The first thing I noticed about eight years ago was that the sentence structure in her annual Christmas letter was much simpler than it used to be; there were virtually no complex or compound sentences. And, Mom was no slouch in the language department either. She prided herself on her precise enunciation and command of English grammar and corrected her children’s grammar at every opportunity. I clearly remember learning several fancy words from her as a kid:  inclement (written in an excuse to a teacher as to why we had been delayed returning from a trip to my grandparents’ house), obstreperous (used to describe my brother) and loquacious (said about my sister Mary). As time went by, Mom started to have trouble retrieving common words and telling an organized story, much to her own frustration. Eventually, she forgot the names of many everyday items and had trouble expressing her thoughts, needs and wants. Nonetheless, she would amaze (and fool) us with her ability to utter appropriate cliches in response to certain conversation prompts or social situations. For example, up until recently, when asked how she was, she would invariably reply, “Well, I’m able to be up and about.” Or, whenever she would see me again after an absence, she would say, “Well, you’re sure looking good.” She should have been a politician! By last year at this time, Mom had pretty much lost her ability to carry on a conversation, but she still seemed to enjoy listening to the talk around her and could respond more or less appropriately to a direct question. But, over the course of last summer, she seemed more and more lost in her own world, largely unable to communicate any but the most basic thoughts and sometimes speaking incoherently. She was resorting more and more to gesturing, making faces, and laughing. Thank God for the laughter. She could still enjoy a joke and some silly fun. Just about the time when I thought her speech was no longer was making much sense at all, this past autumn Dad asked her at breakfast one morning, “Well, Ma, what are you going to do to piss me off today?”  Without hesitating, she replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Cracked all three of us up. Then Dad told me they had the same “conversation” every morning.

That was last fall. Mom fell at Thanksgiving time, and after a short hospital stay and a six-week stint in a nursing home, we moved her into an assisted living home in January. Physically, she has recovered from the fall, but being institutionalized did not do her cognition any good. With every transition she seemed to lose more linguistic ability to the point where now she carries on conversations mostly with herself. What she is able to articulate in words often doesn’t make any sense to those of us that adhere to more accepted linguistic norms, but she carries on as if she is making sense  or reverts to laughter to smooth over the gaps in understanding. I guess that’s an old conversational trick we all use at times and another one that dies hard.

For my dad, of course, this process of watching and trying to deal with Mom’s mental decline has been devastating. It would be for any spouse. But, I can’t help feeling that for him it is especially hard because his way of interacting with people, including her, has always been about the B.S.– the banter, the debate, the verbal give-and-take, the expounding, the pontificating, the lecturing, the ranting, and always with the ear tuned for a smart rejoinder, a witty comeback, a new joke–something to incorporate into his own vernacular. Mom was his foil and (mostly) appreciative audience for over 60 years–laughing at his oft-repeated jokes and stories in spite of herself and sharing in the fun, even when it was at her expense. It was part of  their public and private dialogue, their dialect, their dance. Now the dialogue has become a monologue, the dialect is becoming extinct, and the dance is coming to an end.

There is much research being done into Alzheimer’s dementia and how to relate to patients and understand their needs and the reasons for some of their bizarre behavior. Familiar music, old photos, and coloring all seem to help calm my mom and trigger some memories, but so far I cannot decipher this new language that her diseased brain produces and that she tries mightily to use. I can only cling to the moments when we share a laugh over something silly, she acknowledges that I’m her daughter, or at the end of a largely unintelligible visit, she hugs me and says as plain as day, “You can leave now, but you come back to see me.” And, I will go back, always hoping for a glimpse of the woman I used to know and whose advice and easy company I miss so much. I would give anything to discuss a book with her or to have her know her great-grandchildren, to marvel at their intelligence, teach them fancy words, and even correct their grammar.