My mother, Edwina, fell and hit her head a few times in the past five or so years, with that contributing to her decline. She developed dementia, with even long-term memories not being reliable.
When I took my parents to an early dinner, she would often tell the server that the meal was the best she ever had, because she could not remember that she had eaten that dish many times before.
She was in the room when my father passed away, but she did not appear to understand what was going on. I took her into another area to avoid her being in the room when the funeral home personnel took him. When we returned, her first words were, "Where's Dad?"
I drove her to his funeral at Fort Logan, but she said almost nothing during the trip. When we entered Fort Logan with its long rows of gleaming white tombstones, she blurted out, "Why are we here?" All I could say was, "Dad's funeral."
She had days when she would say she was confused. I could tell it really bothered her, but there was nothing I could do. Eventually she stopped mentioning her confusion. One experienced caregiver told me that dementia patients all go through the same transition. When they realize they are losing their mind, it bothers them immensely because they can still remember what it was like to have a working brain. It's probably more than a little frightening. When they become a little worse and can no longer remember being normal, they are more at peace. A caregiver said she had seen many people in that transition, crying and upset, but then they became, not happy, but no longer tortured.
She would tell anyone who asked that she was named after her father, Edwin, who actually wanted a boy, but settled for adding an 'a' to the end of Edwin. Except that her father's first name was something else entirely.
She moved to the memory care floor where dementia sufferers are common, though there are other poor souls as well. One table in the dining room was reserved for people who could not feed themselves. The caregivers on the floor were the best I have ever seen in terms of compassion. One was a hospital nurse who worked there on her day off. Most of the caregivers genuinely cared about the residents, with a few of them giving the nicer residents, like my mother, a kiss on the head.
But care like that is not cheap. The cost was thousands per month. Some people eventually ran out of money and were forced to move to a grim, spartan Medicare / Medicaid facility where staff often treated residents like cattle. And if social Darwinists / Ayn Rand groupies have their way, even those facilities will be closed, forcing helpless people onto the street where they will die in short order.
Another thing I was told is that dementia sufferers lose the sense of smell. There is research going on to see if dementia can be predicted based on a person losing certain smells. They need to either be in a memory care center or a place where chemicals are nowhere to be found, as they will drink toxic substances and not realize it.
It's common practice to force dementia sufferers into memory care centers because they are difficult to deal with. But that makes their suffering so much worse, because they will always be in a strange place, as compared to allowing them to continue to live at home where they would be surrounded by familiar things. It would be necessary to remove all toxic substances and sharp knives. It would also be necessary to have someone, either relatives, paid caregivers, or volunteers, in the house during the day to keep them company and prepare their meals. Being in perpetually unfamiliar surroundings substantially increases their stress level.
She continued to fall about every other week, sometimes requiring stitches. I can only guess, but she was probably looking for Dad or me. She asked the caregivers a few times to change the sign on her door to add his name. She was often told that he had passed, but it didn't stick. I would often find her sitting or sleeping in a chair in the hall, clearly waiting for me, not understanding that she was actually making it more difficult for me because I had to find her instead of simply going to her room.
I never saw her doing it, but she must have visited the rooms of other people. Her favorite color was blue, matching her eyes, so we sometimes found blue sweaters that were too small for her. Stealing from other rooms or common areas isn't unusual in memory care centers. The staff actually places attractive, inexpensive items in the common areas knowing that they will be borrowed and eventually returned.
I visited almost every day for thirty minutes or so just after lunch, bringing her a cookie and a cup of coffee. Every time she would say that the cookie was really good and I don't believe she was saying that just to be nice. I found it difficult to converse with her. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I should have concentrated on events from her past, as volunteer caregivers did to great success.
I really thought she would live for a few more years, but then again, I was surprised when Dad died after less than two months in hospice care.
I may be reading too much into it, but in the month before he died, my father would ask when I was returning, something he never did when we were younger. I didn't recognize it until it was too late, but he didn't want to be alone in his final days, especially with his nightmares -- and in an assisted living facility, residents are alone for most of the day. In her last week, my mother complained when I said I could only stay for thirty minutes or so. I kick myself for not recognizing the importance of her remark.
Most residents had visitors only on major holidays. This facility had a buffet for holidays, but even then some residents had no visitors. I'm confident my parents received more visits than anyone else in the building, maybe ever.
One day she was slower than I had ever seen her while using her walker, but somehow the alarm bell did not sound for me. I wondered if she had suffered a minor stroke. She got a little better over the next few days, so I hoped it was only a minor problem. If only.
On her second-to-last day, I visited as usual. We talked and watched TV. She fell asleep, something she often did. I did not have the heart to wake her, so I left after looking at her for thirty seconds to make sure she was really asleep.
The caregivers told me that on the morning of her last day, she complained of chest pains and pain in her jaw, both classic symptoms of a heart attack. They promptly sent her to the ER, but she only lasted a few hours. At least she did not have to spend a long time in the hospital. Given that heart disease does not run in the family, not to mention that she taught water aerobics for many years after retiring, it's likely that her heart attack was caused by the loss of her husband and the stress of living in a very strange place.
She died a little over a month after her 91st birthday, while my father died a little less than a month before his 98th birthday. There's some kind of grim symmetry there. They had been married almost 72 years.
With military cemeteries, families aren't given much choice as to times and dates. The service was scheduled for Halloween, which in Denver is notorious for snow. It snowed the night before, the day of her viewing, but on her service date, the sky was blue, though it was a bit cold. It wasn't nearly the hot summer day of my father's service, but it was fine. We won't forget either day.
Happy Halloween, Mom! I wore a blue sweater for your service, a shade I know you would have liked. Now you're back with Dad, this time to stay. I'll visit again on Veterans Day.