Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Georgia's Mind on my Mind

Last weekend was rough. I know I have to write about it, but it has taken some time to compose my thoughts and start writing.

Deb and I drove to the South Dakota/Minnesota border to visit her parents. My father-in-law Ken is in a nursing home in Ortonville, Minnesota, where his Parkinson's disease and Myasthenia Gravis can be properly dealt with. Dad still spends most of his days at the family home overlooking Big Stone Lake a few miles north of Big Stone City, South Dakota, where Georgia, his bride of 55 years, still resides. Dad returns to the nursing home each evening; Mom is under the care of various family members, including her son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Mom is only 72 years old. But she has Alzheimer's.

Dad's Parkinson's has been getting gradually worse over the past 20 some years. Dad still insists on doing yard work around the house. The fact that the "yard" encompasses several acres does not slow him, or his Hover-round. Joking about how well he'd be able to jig for fish seemed funny when he was diagnosed. Not so much today. Although his tremors are fairly well under control through medications, it's heartbreaking watching the deterioration of the body of the former high school basketball star and all around athlete who loved recalling his swims across Big Stone Lake. Dad's mind is still sharp, probably exacerbating his frustration with his inability to live independently and certainly exacerbating the helplessness he feels as he watches Mom slip away.

When we arrived home on Saturday morning, I was a bit taken aback to see my nephew Shawn coloring in a children's coloring book. Shawn has taken on the responsibility of caring for his grandmother. I took the coloring to be a form of relaxation on the weekend since he had other family members around to relieve him of the constant obligation. Nonetheless, it struck me that, at 18, he should be spending time reading, not coloring pictures of kittens and bunnies.

Unfortunately, the coloring books were not for Shawn. As if a pointed demonstration of Mom's mental decline just since Christmas, the coloring books serve as a way for her to pass time. Shawn was not coloring for his own account. He was starting a page as a guide for his grandmother. During the 30 hours or so that we shared with Mom and Dad last weekend, I experienced a number of such doses of reality and realized, sadly, that an important era in my life as all but over.

The two parental in-laws presented a stark contrast to one another. Dad is healthy of mind; weak of body. Mom is physically fit but slipping away mentally. Both strive to overcome the lousy cards they've been dealt. Dad insists on staying active beyond the dictates of common sense. Mom repeats snippets of conversation as exchanged in order to appear as if she is fully following and participating in the discussion. She still seems to recognize everyone around her. But she makes allusions to events that never happened and places that don't exist.

Dad, Ken, has an amazing spirit and he will continue to fight against the physical limits his illnesses impose. I expect him to dance at MY funeral. Today, I find myself pondering Georgia's transformation from the doyenne of Big Stone Lake, whose accomplishments are memorialized in granite tributes on the Minnesota/South Dakota border, to the vulnerable and frightened recluse facing a loss of all she has known.

I remember being told 26 years ago that there was no experience like becoming a parent, that no amount of detailed, image evoking description beforehand could prepare you for the emotional tsunami that arrives with the birth of your first child. I believe it is the same way with watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's disease. There is simply no way to prepare for having someone with whom you've shared your entire life carry on in front of you as if you had never met and without any memory of everything that went into weaving a family fabric.

Mom is not yet at the point where she cannot relate to her family members. In some ways, living three hours away is a blessing. We are not confronted daily with the face to face evidence that Mom is slipping away. On the other hand, there is a desire to spend as much time as possible before we are strangers to her.

As I hugged her last weekend and, even more sadly, as I watched Deb hug her, I had to wonder if this would be the last time where there would be mutuality in the recognition. Given the progression in just the past two months, I have no assurance that Mom will continue to know us in the months ahead.

The scourge of memory loss disease runs in Mom's family. She conveyed a blessing on my wife some years ago while visiting Mom's ailing sister when she directed Deb not to take anything personally once Mom faced her own challenges with Alzheimer's. Her past thoughtfulness has helped. There have been instances when Deb has had to take charge of financial matters, business matters and health care matters for her parents. Dad understands; Mom pushed back, unsuccessfully, wanting to maintain her independence as a badge of competency.

But now, after a few months have passed, there seems to be an emotional surrender and a willingness to let others care for Mom's needs. She has transitioned from hiding her smoking, to smoking openly (including, very temporarily, in the family fireworks store), to not caring about smoking. Her days of exercising her mind with crossword puzzles are long gone. Now, she struggles to follow Shawn's lead and color in the line drawings of cute little animals.

I know we are not alone in this. I am blessed that my father seems abundantly healthy in mind and body. But I have so many contemporaries going through the same struggles that Deb and I face with Mom. Modern Medicine has bestowed the blessing of long life; Mother Nature taketh away some of that blessing for some of us. Years ago, we would joke about grandma or grandpa "getting senile". Now that our lifespans have increased, we are forced to deal with the progression of senility over an additional ten years or so.

Like the newborn that filled us with wonder, and as with the responsibilities that we gladly accepted when we joined the ranks of parenthood, we now begin to cope with equally dependent loved ones at the other end of the life cycle and, like it or not, must again take on responsibilities of care and nurturing as we would wish to be cared for and nurtured.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Sam - very insightful.

Before my grandmother, Mudge, passed away, I was the only family member left in the state, and I was the one closest to her in her declining years. I, too, had to take on a lot of repsonsibility, and to step in (and step on toes) when it came to her independence. Scott Anderson can attest to that!

It truly is heart-wrenching to watch someone who has lived such a vibrant life slip away, little by little. Difficult as it is, though, I would not have traded the opportunity to ease her final years for anything. I owed her so much more, it truly was the least I could do.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


RT said...


I'm crying for you and Deb. I came to know Ken and Georgia as a loving, active and sharp witted couple. It just isn't fair to any of us. But hey, who said life is fair. And I know the pressures it puts on family, too.

If there are consolations I know Ken and Georgia provided and continue -- in the spirit and fight you captured in your blog --to provide a strong family background for Phillip and Ellie. And for all of us who know them. I thank you for extending your family to mine.

Your Bro'

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