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Together again, time with Mom a priceless gift

When my brother told me our mom could have a designated emotional support person, all I could picture was a fluffy service dog wearing a bright orange vest.

At the end of February, the governor allowed for one individual to be able to visit their loved ones in assisted living facilities. While my brother takes care of Mom’s finances and doctor’s appointments, I attend to her personal needs. In other words, I’m her toilet paper, toothpaste, soap and lotion gal.

Since Mom could only have one ESP, it made sense for that person to be me. Plus, I look better in orange.

Actually, I was relieved to learn I wouldn’t have to wear the vest or remain on a leash. All that was required was the completion of a fair amount of paperwork, and an introduction to the automated sign-in process. At every visit I fill out a health questionnaire and take my temperature. Surgical masks are required at all times, even though Mom is fully vaccinated.

Small price to pay to be able to see my mother again.

On Feb. 24, I walked through the doors of my mother’s apartment for the first time in a year.

“Surprise!” I said. “Do you recognize me with this surgical mask?”

She laughed and reached for me.

“Of course, I do!” she said. “You’re my baby girl!”

And then we cried because that’s what we do when we’re happy.

“I’m your ESP,” I explained.

She shook her head.

“Now, honey, you know we don’t believe in things like that.”

I grinned.

“Well, believe it or not I’m going to come see you every week,” I said.

Then I got busy checking her cupboards to see what she needed. Alzheimer’s has decimated Mom’s short term memory. As she likes to put it, “My short term memory is – very short!”

This made it difficult to discern what personal supplies she needed via phone calls. For a while she would try to go through her cupboards while I was on the phone with her, but that worsened her anxiety.

For months I’ve had to guess how much toilet paper she had, or if she was out of deodorant. That caused me anxiety. However, I was relieved to find I’d done a pretty good job guesstimating.

I was wrong about her candy stash, though. Every week she’d tell me she was out, but I assumed she’d forgotten some still in the cupboard. Nope. Mom’s sweet tooth is impressive.

As I sorted, tidied and organized, I paused in front of her wall calendar. It was still on March 2020. The world stopped for a lot of us that month, but not as completely as it did for our elders in assisted-living facilities.

Gratefully, I hung her new calendar.

I wanted to take a picture of us, so I fetched Mom’s hairbrush.

“My goodness!” I said. “Your brush is missing a lot of bristles.”

She nodded.

“Yeah, it’s losing teeth as fast as I am.”

I brushed her hair, and told her I’d bring her a new one. Then I dabbed a touch of lipstick on her and snapped a few photos.

Cindy Hval with her mom. February 2021

“How come you’re taller than me now?” she asked. “I was always taller than you.”

I assured her the only growth spurt I’d had was COVID-19 pounds.

She shrugged.

“Must be gravity.”

The next week I showed up with the biggest size bag of her favorite Wintergreen Life Savers I could find.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m going to have fresh breath until I die!” Mom said.

I pointed out I bought her the party-size bag, and she said, “Honey, if they find out we’re partying they aren’t going to let you come see me anymore!”

But they will, and now that we’re in Phase 3 she can have additional visitors, not just her designated emotional support person.

I unwrapped her new hairbrush and slid it through her silver hair while she reminisced about babysitting my boys when they were little.

She caught my hand and held it to her cheek.

“I’m glad you didn’t forget me,” she said.

It doesn’t take ESP to understand how precious these visits are for both of us.

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Seeing Mom

If I’d known I wouldn’t see her again for six months, I’d have given her an extra hug.

When I left my mom’s assisted living apartment on Feb. 29, I assumed I’d see her when I returned from visiting my grandsons. COVID-19 proved that assumption wrong.

Phone calls took the place of weekly visits, and instead of loving celebrations on her birthday and Mother’s Day, we stood in the parking lot below her second-floor window and held up signs that her failing eyes could barely see.

Mom has Alzheimer’s, so phone calls are often challenging. She still knows all of us, but her memories of the distant past are much sharper than say, remembering what she had for lunch. Or remembering why no one has come to visit her.

“My mom used to send me to my room when I was bad. Have I been bad?” she asked.

So, I remind her of the pandemic and how her facility is trying to keep everyone healthy, and she says, “Oh, yes. I saw that on the news.”

The next time I called she said, “I tried to go to the dining room for lunch today, but I got caught at the elevator and sent back to my room. I finally made some friends here, and I’m worried they’ve all forgotten me.”

She doesn’t have much of an appetite, and eating all her meals alone in her room, hasn’t improved it. Recently, I was on the phone with her when her dinner was delivered, so I asked her to tell me what room service had provided. She obligingly took the lid off her plate.

“0h, for the love of Pete, not again! It’s macaroni and cheese with what looks like birthday sprinkles on it!”

I tried to convince her it was some kind of vegetable garnish, but she wouldn’t buy it.

“It’s birthday sprinkles,” she insisted.

Some days she’s in better spirits than others. One morning she told me she was up and dressed, had breakfast, made her bed and even curled her hair.

“Of course, I have two curlers in the front which I’ll probably forget to take out like I usually do,” she said. “Also, I’m all out of hard candy. I can’t figure out who keeps eating it all!”

I didn’t feel the need to remind her she hasn’t had any visitors since the first of March.

Finally, on Aug. 26, I got to have an outdoor socially distant visit with her. She scooted her walker out the facility’s front door, and even though her face mask was in place, I could tell she was smiling.

“Oh, I can’t tell you how beautiful you look to me,” she said.

So we got the crying out of the way first thing.

Mom, August 2020.

She reached out for a hug, and I had to back away.

“We can’t hug yet,” I told her.

What a thing to tell a mother, especially my mother.

Mom is a hugger and a kisser. She grew up longing for physical affection that she didn’t receive from her mother, so when she had children and grandchildren, she lavished them with all the affection she’d craved.

Still, I’m so thankful to be able to sit across from her and visit. Being out of her room and in the fresh summer air is so good for her, but hugs are healing, too.

Countless studies have shown the importance of physical touch. It reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and calms the heart rate and blood pressure.

For now, I’m focused on making our outdoor visits as enjoyable as possible. Last week, I wore a mask that matched my navy and white polka dot blouse. I knew Mom would get a kick out of it. She was quite the fashion plate in her day.

When I snapped a photo of her, she insisted I take a selfie of my matching ensemble.

“I taught her that,” she told everyone who passed by.

Matchy, matchy made Mom happy!

In-person visits do both our hearts good. The results of social isolation and touch deprivation can be devastating, especially for elderly parents. And honestly? It’s not great for their kids, either.

This pandemic has taught me not to take anything for granted – the professional handshake at the outset of business meetings, the quick hugs from friends, a mother’s warm embrace. That’s why I’m doing everything I can to comply with mandated health protocols.

I really want to hug my mom again.