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A Troubling Thanksgiving

Our parenting columnist copes with the sadness of Thanksgiving with her aging parents.

My Thanksgiving was a Twilight Zone episode on the Titanic.

I brought my kids, 10 and 12, to their grandparents’ house three hours from San Ramon in Arnold, California.

My parents, now 80 and 85, live at the bottom of a big hill on a lot with many tall redwood trees, overlooking a golf course. It’s beautiful. The air is fresh. Hundreds of stars light up the sky at night.

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, my parents’ health has declined dramatically this past year…and I’ve discovered, even more profoundly in recent weeks.

Dad is in constant pain for reasons doctors can’t seem to alleviate. He should be in a wheelchair because he can’t walk without assistance, but he stubbornly refuses.

He sits in a leather chair watching TV all day, literally a prisoner in his own home. He refuses to go to an assisted living facility.

When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by my parents. My mom, who is increasingly confused and forgetful these days, had all of the dinner fixings out on the counter but couldn’t quite formulate what steps to take to get, say, a can of olives open and into a dish.

As I scurried around, putting potatoes in water, cutting bread, opening a can of gravy, Mom looked at me sympathetically. “I never thought I’d have to make my niece do so much work.”

The word “niece” fell into the gravy and stewed there, bubbling, as I stirred.

My mom thinks I’m her niece?

Earlier this year, my mom refused several attempts to get her to a doctor to be tested for memory impairment issues. My brother and I hoped it was only mild cognitive impairment or age-related dementia, not early stage Alzheimer’s.

She didn’t seem that bad. Until now.

Dad fell asleep before dinner was ready then woke up angry. “What’re you eating now for? It’s only one o’clock. I said we would eat at five.”

My mother caters to him like Edith Bunker to Archie. She shuffled over to his chair. “Do you want to eat with us?”

“No!” he barked. “It’s not time yet.” He grumbled.

I looked at my kids. Their eyes were wide. I wanted to say, “Well, look at the time. We better be going,” and whisk them away, far away from this darkness.

But it was Thanksgiving, and I realized both my parents were prisoners now. Dad relegated to his chair, pain eating away his soul. Mom, only a shadow of her former self with a flickering memory.

Recently, after a series of negotiations Henry Kissinger would be proud of, my brother managed to convince my parents to allow a caregiver into their home. Today will be the first day she visits them.

I’m grateful that we’ve made this first, big step to get them help, but I’m afraid it’s not enough.

My mom came up to me in the kitchen as I was washing dishes, announcing, “We have a secret room in the attic. I want to show it to you.” She looked at me like a child wanting to share a favorite toy.

“Mom, I know where your room is. It’s okay. You don’t have to show it to me.”

But she really wanted to show someone the “secret” room. “You guys want to see it?” she asked my kids.

They were very excited. She took my son’s hand and my daughter followed behind as they walked up the stairs.

In a few minutes, they came down. Mom took my elbow as I was putting away plates in a cupboard. Her eyes were pleading. “Can you help me find the attic? It’s not there anymore.”

Uh oh. I wiped my hands on a towel. “Sure Mom.”

We walked upstairs. My parents’ old bedroom is essentially a converted loft. The front half of the loft is an office. A door separating the office from the bedroom was closed.

I guess the closed door was what threw her. She thought the room disappeared. She didn’t think to open the door.

I opened the bedroom door.

“Oh, there it is,” she said.

At night my daughter and I slept in my parents’ old bed in the mysterious disappearing room. It was freezing. My parents’ furnace was broken. I cuddled my daughter in my arms to keep her warm.

Referring to my mother’s dementia, my daughter asked in the pitch darkness of the room, “Is that going to happen to you, Mommy?”

“If it does, just take me to Hawaii and drop me off at the beach.”

“Oh, I wanna come, too,” she said.

“Well, good,” I said, holding her tight. “Then that’ll be the plan.”

Mary Dunne Rose December 04, 2011 at 04:51 PM
Julie Your article touched me! As our parents, friends and neighbors age we face challenges that allow us to rise up and show our children who we really are. You showed compassion, understanding and patience. Your children will learn and your parents are blessed to have you in their life! You might want to secure your parents assets and important papers. Elder financial abuse is a huge, growing problem. And take time for yourself, burnout can occur from all the stress surrounding this life transition! Take Care, Mary Dunne Rose

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