Every time I see a salt and pepper haired mother and her adult daughter at a ladies lunch, I feel a twinge. In my mind’s eye I can see my mom and me laughing in a bistro with tall glasses of ice tea and tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad on the table.
Mattie Lee Robinson Crossley was someone who went or made her own way. She was an early embracer of whole foods and frozen yogurt in a city where sugar and salt were diet staples. She led an uphill- and ultimately successful- campaign to desegregate the Memphis' tourism effort, and she was a fierce advocate for preservation of the Delta blues tradition. She reveled in her career as an educator, but delighted in mothering. I sobbed uncontrollably when she no longer knew who I was.
My mother’s illness caught us by surprise. I was the one who first recognized the signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and it fell to me to get my sister, father and other family members to accept that my mother’s bewilderment about finding familiar places, her constant repetition, and her increasing paranoia meant something was terribly wrong.
We arranged for tests to confirm her diagnosis and determine treatment. We sought referrals from doctors and then support from the Alzheimer’s Association. Trying to pull together all of what she needed was a confusing journey.We zigzagged through disparate branches of the health care system like balls in a pinball machine, all the while in a fog of fear about what lay ahead.
We, ourselves, made major changes. We were able to hire a lovely compassionate woman to assist my dad in tending to my mom at home. My sister moved back to our hometown to be a nearby source of daily support for my dad and I traveled home every three months to relieve both of them from the ongoing emotional wear and tear of 24/7 caregiving.
Mother spent four years in her own house, and the last three years of her life in a nursing home. One of us was by her side everyday. She died at 72 and though we knew her death was inevitable, we were still not prepared to let her go.
Author Tia Walker says, “Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn’t know possible.” Amen.
This commentary was written as part of WGBH News' week-long focus series on elder care: ‘You’re Not Alone: Caring for Our Elderly Parents