Last year a strange lady inhabited my mom's body. She moved in around the time we began discussing the possibility of Mom, a spry 89-year-old, leaving her beautiful three-bedroom home for a one-bedroom apartment in an independent living residence.
This new woman was confused and unsure. She had been living on her own for the past few years, after the death of my father. A part of her knew it was time to give up the responsibilities of owning a home. On the flip side, this was home, for God's sake. Why would she want to leave?
My sister and I were also uncertain. The image of our mother eating dinner alone, night after night, squeezed at our hearts. During the pause in conversations, I heard my mother's loneliness. Yet, it was impossible to imagine not seeing her at that large kitchen table reading the paper or on a lounge by the pool.
It took many months of deliberation, but we finally moved her into an assisted living facility. Her apartment is lovely and filled with the familiar: her worn couch, family photos on the refrigerator, art from around every trip she took with my father, a homemade quilt. Every afternoon a buttery strip of sunlight falls across the carpet. It as much like home as possible.
The first few weeks were difficult on all of us except her dog. He didn't care where he slept as long as he was with my mom.
And that first night was positively heartbreaking. As I said goodbye, this woman who had raised me to be strong and positive, who had dropped me off at college with the promise that I would find someone to eat with in the dorm, squeezed my hand and looked at me with frightened eyes
So, there I stood, promising her that very same thing. She would find her tribe and make friends. But there is one small, or rather large, difference. Going off to college is the beginning of a new life. Of a future with unlimited opportunities. Moving into a retirement home is the beginning of the our last act.
Yes, her apartment is breezy and fresh and warm. But outside in the hallways there is an air of uncertainty. Many of the residents need caregivers. The empty chairs lined up for the afternoon performance often make it difficult for me to breathe. An ambulance arrives almost daily. Mom says all these "old" people make her feel old. She sees her future in front of her and she is far from that future. Because when she looks in the mirror, she still sees herself as a young girl.
This may not be the place for my mom. But I did learn some very important things during the process:
1. You must have patience. Moving your parent into a strange environment cannot be rushed. And "learning to love" this new home takes time
2. There is nothing more important than showing compassion. Saying you understand is not enough. You must show your love. Bring your mom her favorite chocolate bar. Bring your dad his favorite latte. And bring yourself and your children. There is no such thing as visiting too much.
3. There will be fear. You may be afraid, but your parent is terrified.
She is settled now, with a clique of friends. And just like college girls, they gossip and giggle. And joke about the elderly gentleman who introduces himself everyday, as if they have never met.
At this point, I'm not sure this is where she'll spend her tomorrows. But I'm glad my mom, that feisty, kind, upbeat woman has returned. And you can bet I'll do anything to keep her that way, for as much time as we still have together.