When Alzheimer’s Complicates ‘Honor Thy Mother’
“You have your lunch, right?
“Your swim bag?”
“And the guitar is in the car for your lesson later?” I volley at my 10 year old and teen son in the morning rush.
“YES, Mom!” They both shout simultaneously.
Then out loud, to myself: “Long-term healthcare phone number to find out what the hold-up is on payment to Mom’s home? Laptop to write mother’s history out for caregivers? Gym bag to dance around for an hour so I don’t get Alzheimer’s too?”
Check. Check. And check.
When you’re taking care of two boys, a dog with a bad back, and a mother who has lost rational thought, this is often my routine.
As a member of the “sandwich generation” — which for anyone unfamiliar with the term, consists of people in their 40’s and 50’s responsible for the care of children and one or more aging parents –- what I often want to do is throw myself out of a moving car from the stress. Although, I’m okay when I’m moving. It’s when I’m stuck in traffic late for a doctor’s appointment for my mother — making me very late to swim team pick up for my son — that I have thoughts of making a left into oncoming traffic.
There is a unique feeling of inadequacy when you’re living in the sandwich — the “guilt sandwich,” is more apt, because when I’m with my children, I think I should be spending more time with my mother. When I’m with my mother, I wonder if the kids are okay. Then I remember I’m married and that my husband is probably feeling neglected, too.
Given that I was the son my father never had and somehow remained ignorant to the limitations of biology, I didn’t think about having children until I was 38. Bottom line, my mother is old, my children are young, and I drink a lot of caffeinated beverages.
My sandwich is even less appetizing due to the aforementioned Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s caretakers need a lot of patience and generosity of spirit to keep showing up. Even if you had an ideal relationship with your loved one before the disease hit, it’s very, very hard. In cases like mine, where the relationship was “complicated,” (another word professionals use to make a situation that can trigger blind rage sound civilized), the experience can make you want to put on Netflix, stock up on frosted Poptarts and never leave the house again.
Fortunately, I am not alone in my “complicated” sandwich. Since 2005, at least 45% of people between 40 and 59 are responsible for caring for one or more children and an aging parent or two. Consequently, there are lots of support groups, books, and random people at the grocery store with whom you can commiserate.
You know what else I discovered works surprisingly well? The Fifth Commandment.
I came across “Honor Thy Mother and Father,” as if for the first time, when my third-grade son was learning about all 10 of them in Sunday school. Whomever you believe wrote the commandments, I can tell you from personal experience He/She/It/They were onto something. First of all, this is a true gift to us sandwich dwellers. Because the commandment doesn’t say, “Be A Perfect, Devoted Adult Offspring To The Exclusion of The Rest of Your Life.”
Since I don’t respond well to rules, religion isn’t always the first place I turn, but after half a decade supervising the care of a woman with limited maternal instincts, I can’t help admiring the foresight of putting this among the top-10 foundational values for mankind. I appreciate that when I’m feeling lost and inadequate at the job of “daughtering,” I can read this and think, I am doing this.
I may not be dressing in perfectly coordinated outfits with appropriate accessories, or making a killing selling real estate, or flipping through the pages of Gourmet magazine for recipe ideas and Vogue magazine for my “winter white” resort options like my mother did, but I have definitely seen to it that she has a beautifully furnished room and is surrounded by dozens of pictures of her husband of 40 years and her four grandchildren.
My sister lives in Boston and comes to visit every few months, and my little one is there weekly yelling out the Bingo numbers for her and her fellow residents. Fortunately, Grandma’s face still lights up when she sees me and the boys, although she’s much less sure who the guy is that’s always with us. She still can’t believe I ever married.
After one particularly grueling visit, where, resisting my insistence that she stay hydrated, my mother threw a glass of water at me, I did another Fifth Commandment check. What did it actually mean “to Honor,” a person? I wondered. Then I checked Webster’s, and definition number one said, “to regard or treat (someone) with admiration and respect.”
I don’t do care-taking perfectly, but I have done everything to make sure my mother is treated with respect in this stage of her life. Last year I moved her from New York City, where she was living alone, to a place in Southern California that is bright and sunny and where she is well cared for. And although she can no longer take it in, I continue to admire the best of who she was, that helped shape parts of the best of who I am — a professional woman who knows how to put an outfit together, a proud Jew and always ready to laugh.
Yesterday I went for a lunchtime visit.
“We usually help her with the soup,” the aide says, placing the bowl down in front of her.
“No thank you, I can do it,” I answer, tucking a napkin in the neck of her sweater. She pulls it off. I put it back on. She pulls it off again. I put it in and hold it there with my left hand while I feed her a teaspoon of soup with my right.
“Good,” she says and smiles –- a smile so pure, so present, so unencumbered by the disappointment that often characterized our exchanges since I moved across the country 20 years before, that it takes my breath away. And then it’s gone.
I glance at my watch and see in five minutes I have to go get the boys from religious school.
“I have to go get the boys, your grandsons,” I tell her, guilt hitting me like noxious gas. Fifth Commandment, I think: honor and respect.
“I have to go pick up my sons,” I tell an aide passing by.
“She’s going to be sad,” the woman says.
“Really?” I ask. “You think she knows?”
“Oh, yes,” she says, “but you have to get your boys.”
I kiss my mother on the cheek and go to my car. I take a deep breath.
The only good part is knowing this generation juggle won’t last forever.
Or is it?
Dani Klein Modisett is a writer, comic, actor, mother, wife, daughter, sister and driver who plays out combinations of these roles throughout her days living in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. She is also the author of two books about the importance of laughter in family life, Take My Spouse, Please, and Afterbirth…stories you won’t read in a parenting magazine. Most recently, she had a column for The Jewish Journal. Currently, she is bringing laughter to businesses and Alzheimer’s sufferers with “Laughter On Call”. Learn more at Kleincomedy.com