My father’s last years were difficult. Wheelchair-bound with an advanced case of Parkinson’s and his Alzheimer’s gaining in strength. There were angry outbursts, confusion, depression, withdrawal, hallucinations and fear.
I was not always the best caregiver. I didn’t always understand how—and if I am being completely honest, wasn’t always willing—to extend the compassion he needed and deserved. All too often I let the sadness of the disease or worse—old conflicts—get in the way.
But that was before my long apprenticeship with Mom. She opened my eyes and heart—allowing me to let go of my fear and embrace the person who is with me now instead of yearning for the person who used to be.
A few weeks ago, I thought it might be Mom’s turn. She was changing—increasingly disinterested, withdrawn and incoherent with flashes of belligerence.
And then a reprieve. At a recent care conference, perhaps lulled into complacency by mother’s consistently cheerful demeanor, we decided to forego the anti-depressant she had been taking for so long. Not a great idea as it turned out. We reversed course and within days she was back to her sunny self.
But thanks to Mom, I know now what I needed to know then.
I am ready—emotionally and strategically—to offer her what I had failed to give to Dad: acceptance, patience, a calming presence, touch and a willing resolve to be there as long as she needs me.
These are paintings by Mom’s neighbors who paint in the Elderwise art program at Seattle’s Horizon House.
Anyone who thinks of Alzheimer’s and dementia as horribly depressing should come with me to Assisted Living.
I arrive at lunch time and everyone is in a jolly mood. They nod their approval as I greet each by her correct name. (Sometimes I get them mixed up but they are very patient with me.)
Flora (thin as a bird) consults me, “I ate a piece of toast and a brownie. Do you think that is too much?” “No, I think that is just right,” I say. She smiles. In fact everyone smiles. Happiness abounds.
“You bring a little bit of heaven when you come,” coos Jane.
And the paintings! Ever since I broadened my horizons to include everyone in Mom’s painting class, I’ve been totally amazed. These paintings by Sue and Janet are their interpretations of a flower bulb.
Mother was very funny today. We sat at her lunch table and talked about age.
“I’m not that old,” she declared.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Oh, about 26.”
“Do you know how old I am?” I responded.
“Well, I’ll be nice. You’re 20.”
My response—considerably older than that—will not be quoted here.
“Well, what does that make me?” She asked.
“You will be 96 in March.”
“Oh, that can’t be true. I don’t feel that old.”
She was pretty clear on that point.
We compromised. She is 30 and I am 20.
Works for her…works for me.
Here are two paintings from her painting class. The model was shells with an emphasis on spirals.
If you listen to the ladies of Assisted Living chatting, you might think that they are not really saying much or even anything at all. To our linear minds maybe…but if you put your expectations aside and take the time to really listen, you will find that they take utter delight in each others company.
I was walking with Mom down the hallway yesterday and we encountered Joyce. Mom began chatting in her cheerful, dynamic way and Joyce was holding her little stuffed dog Gus at attention. I’m not really sure what the conversation was about but they were clearly having a wonderful time.
All three of them.
This is a painting of bubbles by another artist in Mom’s class.
The circle of painters in Mom’s class gets bigger every week and some of the art is as staggering to me as Mom’s was when she began painting six years ago. And like Mom’s work, they need to be seen. They so powerfully counter the narrative of loss and sorrow so prevalent in the media.
To that happy end, I’m developing an art exhibit that will do just that. Change the Way We Think about Alzheimer’s—One Painting at a Time
To tell a different story about Alzheimer’s and dementia—illuminating the simple truth that those with AD are Still Here—living lives of dignity, creativity and joy.
To generate awareness and support for the many programs that are making Seattle a Dementia Friendly City
Every week I’m going to share one of these wonderful paintings. The first is by Sue. The model—bubbles.