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If You Needed Help, Does Anyone Have What They Need From You to Step Up to the Plate?

Kay Bransford and I seem to be on the same page a lot these days, but I see that we seem to be the only ones willing to tackle these subjects, so I guess we will keep sounding the drums that all of us need to be preparing in advance for the possibility that something – whether it’s Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, other life-threatening illnesses, or simply time and chance – could suddenly and dramatically or slowly and insidiously render us incapable of taking care of our own affairs.

It seems to me that the very thing we try most to avoid thinking about, talking about, planning for is the very thing that will eventually happen to us all. And that is death.

Denial is, in my opinion, stronger and more pervasive in this area of life than in any other. “If I don’t think about it, then it isn’t real” seems to be the underlying thinking of this denial. I’m here to tell you that all the denial in the world won’t take away its inevitability of happening.

None of us, except those who chose to usurp God’s will and end their own lives, know how or when we’re going to die.

I believe most of us assume it will be quick and instantaneously, but the reality is that, in all likelihood, most of us will probably have a period of decline in which we will need help handling our financial, legal, and medical affairs before we take our last breaths.

And, after we take our last breaths, someone will have to take care of getting us buried and ending our financial, legal, and medical status among the living.

Who would that be for you? Yes, you, the one who is reading this post. Do you know? Does that person know? If that person knows, have you made this as easy as possible for him or her by doing your part and making sure he or she has everything he or she needs to do what needs to be done?

Or, because you don’t want to think about it or talk about, will that person have the burdensome responsibility of trying to figure it out all on his or her own?

We say we don’t want to be burdens to our loved ones. By taking care of this, you and I – we – have taken a big step toward easing the magnitude of that burden that, if we live long enough, will be shouldered by our loved ones.

I did my first will and living will shortly after I turned 21. I had just graduated from college, but not before having a very serious car accident (one that I miraculously survived with some significant injuries, but nothing like what I should have suffered) just before I graduated.

I’d never been that close to being face-to-face with death before, but it made me realize that I needed to make sure that my affairs – and they were paltry in those days but even then I had life insurance – were in order for the ones I’d leave behind.

From that point on, I have been meticulous about keeping my will up-to-date, the beneficiaries on my insurance policies up-to-date, and all the information my executor will need to take care of things up-to-date. I added a DNR to my medical wishes about 20 years ago, I got my cemetery plot 15 years ago, and I wrote out my funeral service and burial wishes about 10 years ago. 

Additionally, my executor has updated access and account information to everything online and offline to finish up my earthly affairs when I’m gone.

preparation-death-alzheimer's-disease-dementias-age-related-illnessesThis, in my opinion, is the last act of kindness I can do in this physical life. It is also one of the greatest.

Mama used to worry that something would happen to me (i.e., that I would die before she did) and then about what would happen to her. There were times in our lives together that could have been a possibility, but I always reassured her that I’d be there with her to the end. And I was by the grace of God.

Of my parents, Daddy was a paradox when it came to this subject. On the one hand, he had life insurance that would take care of Mama after his death and he insisted, in the year before his death, that Mama get her own checking and savings accounts and get credit cards in her name only.

On the other hand, there were other areas in which he had great difficulty facing his mortality. I remember Mama suggesting that they start getting rid of clothes and other things they weren’t wearing or using anymore and Daddy’s response: “the girls can take care of that.”

The will that Daddy had in effect, until shortly before his death, was the one that he had drawn up just after he and Mama adopted us. None of the information was pertinent or relevant anymore.

After much and extended (I’m talking a couple of years) discussion between Mama and him, they finally went to a lawyer, about six weeks before he died, to have a current will drawn up.

Mama was just the opposite. Somehow, I think all the deaths of close and beloved relatives in her early years made the inevitability of death more real to her. She, primarily, during our growing up years, talked on a regular basis about what would happen to us if she and Daddy died and how we needed to take care of each other and be good kids so the road without them would be easier for us.

Not long after Daddy died, she and I sat down together (I was now checking in daily and helping her navigate through some of the things that Daddy had done and offering advice and assistance as she needed it) and she told me what she wanted – and didn’t want – as far as end-of-life wishes.

We went to an attorney together and she did a will (which she later changed to a revocable living trust), living will, and all the POA paperwork. I had copies, she had copies, and she put copies in a safety deposit box at the bank.

At that time, I didn’t need or want knowledge or access to her financial accounts, but as time went on, she needed more of my help in dealing with them, so she gave me access to get into the accounts and help her (we always sat down and did this together until she wasn’t able to anymore) keep up with bills and what she had. 

By doing this with me, Mama made things much easier for me when the time came that I had to step in because she couldn’t do it.

I can’t thank Mama enough for her foresight with this gift. Instead of having to focus on everything brand new coming at me at once, I could focus on what was most important, and that was Mama: loving her, caring for her, being there for her.

The last couple of months Mama was alive, we’d be sitting close, holding hands, and talking and suddenly she’d say “I don’t want be a burden on you,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. I’d squeeze her hands and pull her closer in a hug, kissing the tears away from her cheeks, saying, “Mama, you’re not a burden to me. I love you unconditionally. I wouldn’t be anywhere else doing anything else but right here doing this with you.”

Mama would relax in my embrace and I would hold her tighter as I said these words because they were true and we both recognized that they were true, but most of all, I recognized how easy Mama had made things for me by equipping me with what I needed to step in easily and take care of the routine things so that I could save my energy, my focus, and my love for taking care of her.

In God’s Country: Northeast Tennessee and Mama

This is a remembrance of Mama (written at the blog I created for the memoir I wrote about our family), who would have been 85 today. She fought with strength, dignity, and bravely in all the journeys of her life – including vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and congestive heart failure – and left an example showing us, her kids and grandkids, how to walk and endure our own journeys. Miss my mama and love her dearly. ♥

Fields of Gold: A Love Story - The Book

Eighty-five years ago today, about nine months before the Great Depression began, in Flag Pond, Tennessee, Muriel Foster Ross – my mama – was born to Samuel and Ennis Foster.

A doctor and both grandmothers were there attending the long and arduous birth that was taking a fatal toll on Mama’s mother and led the doctor, upon delivery, to dismissively say “that baby’s going to die” as he handed an underweight and frail Mama to her paternal grandmother, Grandma Foster, and turned his attention to trying to save Ennis Foster’s life.

Grandma Foster countered, “This baby’s going to live!,” and put Mama in the warming bin of the oven in the kitchen – a primitive incubator. Grandma Foster hovered over Mama through that afternoon and night, feeding her and wrapping her up in fresh towels every few hours.

By the next morning, Mama was stronger, had color, and it was…

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Where are you? stings more now

Early on in Mama’s dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – as I was grappling with understanding and accepting what was happening to her mind – it occurred to me that all humans go through an initial incline, a longer period of plateau, and then a final decline.

The decline mimics childhood in reverse, until if we live long enough we end up being like a newborn, totally helpless, totally dependent, unable to express ourselves except through the most primal language we humans have: laughter and tears.

I always told Mama that I’d do everything possible to make sure her second childhood was better than her first one. I did my best, making mistakes along the way (just like there are no instruction manuals for the day-in, day-out parenting of a child, there are no instruction manuals for becoming a parent to your parent, so you learn as you go), but assured that the one place I did not fail Mama was in making sure she knew she was loved, she was wanted, and I wasn’t going to leave her.

My hope is that in our simultaneous and shared journey of her taking two steps back and one step up and me taking two steps up and one step back that, in the end, my love, my care, my concern, my devotion, and my commitment was enough to make up for all the things I didn’t know, didn’t understand, and sometimes screwed up because of my own ignorance and ineptness.

This is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Once committed, even though no one ever really knows what they’re getting into, it requires a lot of tenacity and a lot of prayer. But it also requires unconditional love, abundant mercy, infinite patience, persistent gentleness, and unfailing kindness.

These are the life and character lessons parents learn from raising their kids. For those of us fortunate enough to complete the circle of life for our parents as they go gentle into that good night, we get the opportunity to learn these same life and character lessons.

It is a priceless gift and one I’m thankful to have received.

Dealing with Dementia

spiralstair A year a half ago, I posted an article entitled “Where are you?”  — and I’m still feeling the same guilt — only magnified. At least the last time I went through this stage and wrote about it (it is a recurring issue) my Dad was there with my Mom. Now I know my Mom is by herself. I also know based on my visits and from the staff reports that she is not doing very well in the community.

I get a call two hours after I visited asking me where I am and when I will be arriving and there is something frenetic in her tone.

She will go through these cycles. I imagine her decline is much like a child’s development, but in reverse. When my son was 4, someone shared that kids develop in an upward spiral — two steps forward, one step back. In my…

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Beauty in the Breakdown – You Sure?

This resonated deeply with me. Music is such a powerful force in our lives. Since Mama died, there is much music that we shared throughout our time together that I simply can’t listen to without tears flooding my eyes as memories run their movies, crisp, clear, and vivid through my mind.

Unlike Kay, I’m not a big fan of techno-pop, preferring alternative, indie, and grunge, but I listen mainly to Radio Paradise, an internet music station that plays the most diverse range of music that I’ve been able to find, and they have played “Beauty in the Breakdown” by Frou Frou.

Ironically, it caught my attention the first time I heard it as well. I immediately saw the double meaning in my own life.

Mama’s breakdown. There was no beauty to that to be sure. However, there were beautiful moments throughout the journey. Two are prominent in my mind, when in the middle of all the chaos, confusion, and pain, Mama was delightfully Mama again. I’ve never been able to explain the timing, however, because both were just before big changes. One was the Saturday morning before Mama’s breakdown several hours later and the other was the Saturday and Sunday morning before Mama went into her death sleep in the early hours of that Sunday afternoon.

My own breakdown after Mama’s death. Beauty? It certainly doesn’t seem to be true on the surface.

I’ve never been a visibly emotional person. I worked hard, diligently, painstakingly at “controlling” my emotions all my life. I have always been very deeply affected by things and people and situations, but I found ways to keep a tight lid on that so it never showed and built fortresses around myself to protect myself.

Those fortresses began to crack after Daddy died. I never knew how deeply, how long, and how hard grief could be. I also never knew that the hole left in a heart from losing someone you love never heals completely. But I had Mama to take care of so it helped me move on quickly, burying, I think, much of what I was trying to come to grips with, and get back to the business at hand. She needed me, and that was more important.

But when Mama died, the very foundations of those fortresses seemed to have collapsed. It seems that every emotion I suppressed, hid, buried, ignored decided it was time to deal with it. All at once. In an overwhelming flood that has been difficult, to say the least, to try to sort through, make sense of, and get past.

These days, it seems I can barely speak a sentence without my voice cracking and tears welling up in my eyes. It seems as though everything is right beneath the surface waiting to just spill out without warning. I have cried rivers of tears and yet there seems to be no end to how many rivers are left. I keep thinking at some point there just can’t be any more tears, and then they come again.

But although right now I seem to be drowning in this ocean of tears, I recognize the beauty in it. Because there is some healing in the process. I’ve learned that sometimes to fix something that’s not working right or well, you have to take it completely apart, and put it back together the right way, piece by piece. And that takes time.

And, like Kay, I do recognize this about myself: “I recognize that I’m a much kinder, gentler version of my former self. For that I’m grateful.”

Dealing with Dementia

letgo Music uplifts my mood. It helps me focus and makes me happy. I will typically be listening to techno-pop — it’s better than caffeine if I want a pick-me-up.

I first heard Let Go by Frou Frou when watching Garden State (I thought it was on at the closing of an episode of Gray’s Anatomy — a show I never really watched, but Internet sources won’t validate my recollective memory on that point). It’s been in my head, but never on my iPod, so I finally downloaded it last week. I like the tune and the focus on “letting go and jumping in.”

However, today this song brought me to tears as the words hit me very differently. For a few weeks I’ve noticed a decline in my Mom. When I arrive at her community she is in the living room playing bridge with a new group of residents. Now…

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Siblings, Gratitude and Aging Parents – AARP

Unfortunately, more times than not, siblings do not share equal responsibility for caregiving for our parents with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of physical distance: they want to help, but they are too far away.

However, that is generally not the reason.

Parent-child relationships are complicated from the get-go and each child makes a conscious decision whether to maintain a close relationship or not with his or her parents as an adult (usually as soon as he or she leaves home). These are heart decisions.

For siblings, much of whatever the tenor of their relationships were growing up extends into their relationships as adults.

However, one of the complicating factors is real and imagined grudges and resentments (known or unknown) by siblings, often from perceived wrongs that occurred all along the way of their lives, that are nurtured and grow into full-blown anger and disconnection from each other and from the family.

This happens disproportionately more often than it doesn’t, but if caregivers find themselves in the rare position of having supportive and engaged and grateful siblings, then they should count their blessings. 

Mom & Dad Care

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If You Needed Help, Does Anyone Have What They Need From You to Step Up to the Plate?

Kay Bransford and I seem to be on the same page a lot these days, but I see that we seem to be the only ones willing to tackle these subjects, so I guess we will keep sounding the drums that all of us need to be preparing in advance for the possibility that something – whether it’s Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, other life-threatening illnesses, or simply time and chance – could suddenly and dramatically or slowly and insidiously render us incapable of taking care of our own affairs.

It seems to me that the very thing we try most to avoid thinking about, talking about, planning for is the very thing that will eventually happen to us all. And that is death.

Denial is, in my opinion, stronger and more pervasive in this area of life than in any other. “If I don’t think about it, then it isn’t real” seems to be the underlying thinking of this denial. I’m here to tell you that all the denial in the world won’t take away its inevitability of happening.

None of us, except those who chose to usurp God’s will and end their own lives, know how or when we’re going to die.

I believe most of us assume it will be quick and instantaneously, but the reality is that, in all likelihood, most of us will probably have a period of decline in which we will need help handling our financial, legal, and medical affairs before we take our last breaths.

And, after we take our last breaths, someone will have to take care of getting us buried and ending our financial, legal, and medical status among the living.

Who would that be for you? Yes, you, the one who is reading this post. Do you know? Does that person know? If that person knows, have you made this as easy as possible for him or her by doing your part and making sure he or she has everything he or she needs to do what needs to be done?

Or, because you don’t want to think about it or talk about, will that person have the burdensome responsibility of trying to figure it out all on his or her own?

We say we don’t want to be burdens to our loved ones. By taking care of this, you and I – we – have taken a big step toward easing the magnitude of that burden that, if we live long enough, will be shouldered by our loved ones.

I did my first will and living will shortly after I turned 21. I had just graduated from college, but not before having a very serious car accident (one that I miraculously survived with some significant injuries, but nothing like what I should have suffered) just before I graduated.

I’d never been that close to being face-to-face with death before, but it made me realize that I needed to make sure that my affairs – and they were paltry in those days but even then I had life insurance – were in order for the ones I’d leave behind.

From that point on, I have been meticulous about keeping my will up-to-date, the beneficiaries on my insurance policies up-to-date, and all the information my executor will need to take care of things up-to-date. I added a DNR to my medical wishes about 20 years ago, I got my cemetery plot 15 years ago, and I wrote out my funeral service and burial wishes about 10 years ago. 

Additionally, my executor has updated access and account information to everything online and offline to finish up my earthly affairs when I’m gone.

preparation-death-alzheimer's-disease-dementias-age-related-illnessesThis, in my opinion, is the last act of kindness I can do in this physical life. It is also one of the greatest.

Mama used to worry that something would happen to me (i.e., that I would die before she did) and then about what would happen to her. There were times in our lives together that could have been a possibility, but I always reassured her that I’d be there with her to the end. And I was by the grace of God.

Of my parents, Daddy was a paradox when it came to this subject. On the one hand, he had life insurance that would take care of Mama after his death and he insisted, in the year before his death, that Mama get her own checking and savings accounts and get credit cards in her name only.

On the other hand, there were other areas in which he had great difficulty facing his mortality. I remember Mama suggesting that they start getting rid of clothes and other things they weren’t wearing or using anymore and Daddy’s response: “the girls can take care of that.”

The will that Daddy had in effect, until shortly before his death, was the one that he had drawn up just after he and Mama adopted us. None of the information was pertinent or relevant anymore.

After much and extended (I’m talking a couple of years) discussion between Mama and him, they finally went to a lawyer, about six weeks before he died, to have a current will drawn up.

Mama was just the opposite. Somehow, I think all the deaths of close and beloved relatives in her early years made the inevitability of death more real to her. She, primarily, during our growing up years, talked on a regular basis about what would happen to us if she and Daddy died and how we needed to take care of each other and be good kids so the road without them would be easier for us.

Not long after Daddy died, she and I sat down together (I was now checking in daily and helping her navigate through some of the things that Daddy had done and offering advice and assistance as she needed it) and she told me what she wanted – and didn’t want – as far as end-of-life wishes.

We went to an attorney together and she did a will (which she later changed to a revocable living trust), living will, and all the POA paperwork. I had copies, she had copies, and she put copies in a safety deposit box at the bank.

At that time, I didn’t need or want knowledge or access to her financial accounts, but as time went on, she needed more of my help in dealing with them, so she gave me access to get into the accounts and help her (we always sat down and did this together until she wasn’t able to anymore) keep up with bills and what she had. 

By doing this with me, Mama made things much easier for me when the time came that I had to step in because she couldn’t do it.

I can’t thank Mama enough for her foresight with this gift. Instead of having to focus on everything brand new coming at me at once, I could focus on what was most important, and that was Mama: loving her, caring for her, being there for her.

The last couple of months Mama was alive, we’d be sitting close, holding hands, and talking and suddenly she’d say “I don’t want be a burden on you,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. I’d squeeze her hands and pull her closer in a hug, kissing the tears away from her cheeks, saying, “Mama, you’re not a burden to me. I love you unconditionally. I wouldn’t be anywhere else doing anything else but right here doing this with you.”

Mama would relax in my embrace and I would hold her tighter as I said these words because they were true and we both recognized that they were true, but most of all, I recognized how easy Mama had made things for me by equipping me with what I needed to step in easily and take care of the routine things so that I could save my energy, my focus, and my love for taking care of her.

Lessons We Learn from Caregiving for Our Loved Ones With Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease

In Nick Norton’s blog post, “10 Things Caregiving Taught Me in 2013,” he lists some of the things he learned from caregiving, along with his mom, for his grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease (his grandfather died in June 2013). 

Several of Nick’s lessons resonated with me from my own experiences caregiving for Mama the last several years of her life as she suffered with congestive heart failure, vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. The lessons I learned were ones that I could not have learned any other way or through any other of life’s experiences.

That makes them priceless, although I would not have ever wanted Mama to have to go through what she went through so that I could learn them. However, I consider these lessons that I learned as Mama’s last and lasting gifts to me, giving to and helping me, as she wanted to and did with so many other people throughout her time on this earth.

One of the lessons Nick and I both learned is that until you’ve been a caregiver for a loved one with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, you will never be able to fully understand what it entails.

In the caregiving realm, it is a unique experience. Not only are you dealing with normal aging issues and health concerns, but you are also actively losing a family member – a mentor, a matriarch, a patriarch, a counselor, a beloved friend – while he or she is still alive (in these neurological diseases, we actually lose them twice).

Unlike caring for and raising children, our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease regress instead of progress. Their communication issues increase instead of decreasing. Their complete dependence grows instead of declining. Their vulnerabilities, fears, and anxieties of a lifetime on this planet come back around in full force as their worlds get smaller instead of the dissipation a child experiences as his or her world gets bigger. Their suffering will never get better. Instead, it will increasingly get worse. There’s no way to fix it, no hope for improvement, no expectation of positive changes.

It is truly a 24/7 responsibility. There is no down time. And each journey is unique, so as caregivers we are constantly responding to and adapting to surprises, to the unexpected, to the unknown. It can be both extremely mentally and physically exhausting.

Lessons Learned From CaregivingThe whole experience can be a very difficult thing to actually wrap your mind around, to alter your thinking to adapt to, to, in short, accept and roll with on an even keel. In my experience, this is next to impossible for many people to do, deal with, and stay with for the duration.

That ability is one of the many things that makes caregiving for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease unique. And it makes those of us who choose to do this unique.

Another of the lessons that Nick learned was to pray regularly. Although I’ve always prayed regularly, it was through caregiving for Mama that I really began to understand and practice Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing and Peter’s reminder to cast all my cares on Him.

My prayers became more continual, more deeply personal, and my relationship with God more intimate and more strong, as it remains and continues to grow in to this day and I intend for it to remain and grow in for the remainder of my life.

And looking for the joy in life was another lesson that, like Nick, I learned while caregiving for Mama. There were moments that we had the privilege of sharing together during those years that brought both of us joy and still make me smile when I think of them.

However, I find it much more difficult to find the joy in life in general now that Mama’s gone because it seems that life has gotten a lot harder for me since Mama’s death.

It’s proven to be extraordinarily difficult to find a smooth, seamless, and meaningful transition to the next phase of my life in the absence of being needed, useful, and worthwhile while caring for Mama.

These days,I frequently ask God that if I don’t have any more value in this life if He will just mercifully end it and give me the peace of death until the next phase He has planned for me (so far, His answer has been “no” and I have to accept that until He says “yes”).

But I still try to remind myself to look for joy, even if seems elusive and gone for good, at least in this phase of life for me.

There are life lessons each of us as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will learn. Let’s remember not to get so caught up in the day-to-day, some of which will be sad, trying, frustrating, and full of epic fails, that we miss the bigger picture of what we’re being given the unique opportunities to learn and grow from.