My mother is battling Alzheimer's Disease. This blog piece is about two kids taking a calculated risk, hoping that relocating mom to a more intimate, family-based 'residential assisted care house' will improve her contentment and provide dignity in her final years of life.
In 2000, our family took a financial plunge. We paid an 'endowment' higher than the price of a new Subaru to assure that our mom would have a reserved spot at a desirable senior living facility from age 82 - 102. Our wish was that she'd have many good healthy years living independently throughout her 80's -- she moved in and this first wish came true. We also knew our mother would ultimately end up physically worn down, so we envisioned her spending her sunset years in this particular large-scale nursing care facility, alongside her acquaintances from church and childhood.
What we didn't predict were neurological illnesses that would dramatically change our mom -- Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. Dementias are nasty thiefs in the night -- they camp out undetected inside your body until it's time to steal your memories and whip up a frenzy.
Here's a typical first alert Alzheimer's scenario that occurs -- you are in the parking lot of the Waukesha bank you've visited 300 times and suddenly as you start to drive away you realize that you have no clue where you are or how to get home! This type of fear is totally unfamiliar. You feel off balance, like a cat in a car. What's happening to my mind? Eventually you drive to a place that's familiar and tell a friend that you cannot find your way home. They lead you home. You keep this whole episode secret until it continues to happen. Then you tell one of your kids.
Mom's illness started slowly. It was manageable, we were confident. Then the later stages of the disease snuck in the door after a serious infection and all hell broke loose. Late stage Alzheimer's Disease is a daily disaster. Small puzzle pieces of lost memory become iceberg-sized chunks. During the late stages of mom's illness all kinds of startling symptoms have happened: unwelcome fears, challenging new personality traits, chronic depression, inability to speak clearly and to articulate needs, difficulties eating and taking care of everday functions, sudden fluctuations between nasty and serene, and the inability to remember good friends and family.
When mom moved into the skilled nursing unit at her big facility, we the kids were resigned to the fact that this was her destiny. We willingly went along with the medical decision to move her to the nursing home wing. After all, she had multiple medical issues and she was prone to falling.
But then we saw how unhappy mom was living in her new wheelchair terrain. She sobbed all the time over things she couldn't explain. After a month, we felt ourselves getting depressed over what seemed a hopeless situation. We didn't like the "institutional feeling" of this new residence, the demeaning procedures that helped ensure resident safety, and the incredibly costly care, but we didn't know what our other options were (especially since we had paid the hefty endowment upfront that was not refundable).
Then our luck changed. My sister in Arizona met a friend whose new job is to help caretaker kids like us find a suitable setting for their aging parent(s). This national web-based business is called, "A Place For Mom." It is the country's largest elder care referral service (www.aplaceformom.com).
My sister outlined our situation and filled out a wishlist profile for "A Place For Mom." Her friend pinpointed the best options, based on mom's wishes and our hopes. We discussed possibilities in Wisconsin and Arizona. Within days my sister located two "perfect places" for mom in Surprise, Arizona -- offering compassionate home care, ten minutes from her house, and astonishingly more affordable. The state-certified care facility we ultimately chose is managed by two married thirty-somethings with lots of experience. They are live-in proprietors, along with their two grade-school aged daughters.
Elderly residents live as a family in this house located in a residential neighborhood, with the owners, their daughters, and two pet white rabbits. Some residents have dementia, others are rehabilitating from surgeries or falls. We believe that bigger is not necessarily better -- instead of living on a campus with 500 other people, mom will soon be sharing a home with five other seniors and a young family whose passion is caring for people who are elderly. I'm eager to help make this mid-winter transition happen, and my 90-year-old mother can't wait to see her "new place for mom."