I Wasn’t Prepared to Take Care of My Aging Mother, But I’m Glad I Did

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Illustration by Faye Rogers

‘Whee!” my mother says as she steers the electric shopping cart down the aisle of Home Depot in Mission Viejo. Panic fills my heart as Mom narrowly misses two burly contractors and a woman heading for the flower department. I wonder who will be sued—my mother or me—if she crashes into them. But I don’t want to stop her. She’s having too much fun. This is Home Depot’s fault for offering motorized vehicles to people without driver’s licenses. My mother hasn’t driven in three years, so this bit of motorized freedom must be heaven for her.

“Mom, should you slow down?” I shout as I trot along behind her. Instead of stopping, she laughs. I cringe when she brushes against a display. A few boxes hit the floor. I’m afraid to stop to pick them up and lose Mom in this enormous store. She got away from me in a grocery store last week, and I spent 15 minutes trying to find her. It’s amazing how fast a 90-year-old woman can move while in a shopping frenzy. Every so often, as she passes by the flowers, she throws another potted something into her cart.

After my father died, the idea of becoming my mother’s caregiver terrified me. I was the best choice of Mom’s three daughters to help, ironic because I didn’t want to have children. I liked my freedom. However, my mother gave up so much for me. Caring for her was what I needed to do.

Before Mom arrived from Delaware, where she lived for 40 years, Lisa Jenkins Wright from Orange County’s Council on Aging gave me names of senior centers and adult day care organizations. She provided a book of resources prepared by the council. I was still concerned about how to care for my mom, who suffered from dementia. Caregiving was more difficult than my day job, running a cemetery/mortuary business with 90 employees.

When Mom first arrived in January 2015, she could not make meals for herself while I was at work. She’d forget to eat. When I got home from work, I’d ask if she had lunch. She couldn’t remember. When I tried to hire someone to be at the house for a few hours, my mother got angry with me.

“I don’t need a babysitter,” she said.

I had to find a way for her to accept an assistant. I resorted to the selfish mode, a well-known personality trait of mine.

“Mom, this person is for me, not you. Someone needs to help clean the house.” I avoided Mom’s bright blue eyes while I spoke. “Whoever comes can make lunch for you or take you to the store.”

Mom acquiesced and soon became adjusted to the gentle, caring ladies from Seniors Helping Seniors, one of the many organizations helping families to keep loved ones at home.

As my mother’s primary caregiver, my job was to keep her laughing and having fun. We went out to dinner a couple of times a week. She enjoyed a chance to get out of the house and meet other people. But her dementia kept me on my toes. There were many challenges, including what my mother might say in public. We adjusted her response so that when she saw someone slightly overweight, instead of a loud “My, that person is fat,” she now says “Oh, my.”

A few weeks before the Home Depot excursion, we sat next to a nice couple at Famous Dave’s, a rib place in Irvine. Because of the setup, we were close to our fellow diners. The couple next to us seemed to have compassion for the elderly.

“You look like you are having a good time,” the man said to my mom.

“This is quite a lively place,” she responded. The couple bantered back and forth with her. They had a great sense of humor, and Mom was on her game. She was having a blast. “I’m doing a good job,” I thought, until my mother, the jokester, got out of control. The waitress put water glasses in front of us along with a few straws.

“Say, do you know how to get the paper off the straw?” Mother tore off the top of the paper and scrunched the rest to the bottom of the straw. With a quick puff, she shot the paper so it hit my nose. We all laughed, and she was pleased with the response. Dementia—and her vodka tonic—blurred the boundaries of acceptable behavior. I watched as Mom sucked water into the straw and slowly lifted it out of the glass. She looked at me, then aimed the straw at the man sitting next to her.

“Mom, no, don’t do that,” I whispered.

I had to stop her before she doused the nice gentleman. I placed my hand gently on her arm and repeated, “Mom, please.”

She looked disappointed, then forgot her indiscretion and put the straw back into the glass. She laughed at something the man said.

Thinking of the challenges of caring for my mother, I still struggle to avoid tears. There are so few resources for helping to care for our parents. Because every situation is unique, caregivers struggle with how to solve the next issue. According to Alzheimer’s Orange County, there are more than 84,000 people here suffering from some form of dementia. Of those, 75 percent live with family members.

Time with Alzheimer’s Orange County taught me what to say most of the time to retain my mother’s dignity. I never told my mother that she asked the same question nine times. I always answered like she’d never asked the question before. When she said something nasty, I ignored her comment. My mother had never been mean. The dementia changed her demeanor and allowed a child’s response to something that bothered her.

My mother died at 92. I’m glad I had the chance to make her laugh and to give her the opportunity for mischief after my dad’s death. The last three months of my mother’s life were quite difficult. At her funeral, the picture of Mom at Home Depot driving the shopping cart reminded me that we had many good times together in her last two years.

Maybe I wasn’t such a bad caregiver after all.

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