“Have your children picked out your grave yet!?!” The question was forcefully and loudly spat at me from across the darkened hospital room, and I don’t think I’d ever actually heard a snarl before this. I’d read about snarls, of course, but had never myself been on the receiving end of one, and it effectively knocked me off of my feet and into a chair.
“No, Helga,” I reply very quietly. “I don’t think that they have.”
“No, of course not!” she shouts. “Because they are going to steal mine and put you in it! My children picked out mine years ago, and you are going to steal it!” Her heavy German accent makes her hard to understand sometimes. But this time? The words were very, very clear.
“I promise that I am not going to steal your grave, Helga.” I sadly try to reassure her, knowing that through her fog of dementia and pain medication, I was not going to be successful. So I sit and watch; listen, and just be a presence for her.
We’d had Helga on the floor for about two months, and what we knew of her was not much and very sad. Around Christmas one night, someone had put her in a taxi and sent her to a local nursing home. No calling ahead, no tour. No note. The nursing home had, in my understanding, allowed her to bunk on one of their couches temporarily. Where she had gotten up at some point, tripped over her robe, and broken her hip. And so we met Helga when she was brought onto our orthopedic floor from the emergency department. Right before Christmas.
We fixed her hip and have continued to care for her, over three months now. She has not once had an inquiry. She has not once had a visitor. It is also my understanding, and I work night shift so may not have all of the details, that the hospital has had to go to court for custody of her, and we are now caring for her until we can find her placement. Or until she dies.
Her cries of “Mommy! Mommy!” and “Mommy, I’m thirsty!” echo the halls nightly while I am there. When I respond, and attend to her, she sometimes becomes more lucid, but she is never fully aware of what is going on. I do know that once I am in the room, she knows that I am not her mom. I’ve gathered over the months that she grew up in Germany, and that her parents possibly perished in World War II, amid the horrors of the history of that time.
Unfortunately, her dementia makes it impossible to know more. How sad that such a valuable, brave story is to be lost forever. I’m sure there is one there.
I’m telling you this today because my mom and my aunt have been struggling lately. Two years ago, this month, their mom passed away unexpectedly, leaving my grandpa lonely, bereft, depressed and without the love of his life. My grandparents lived independently, across the country, and the death of my grandma was so life changing for Grandpa, that he started a downward spiral into Alzheimer’s.
As his symptoms worsened and he became more unable to care for himself, my mom and her sister had to make the most difficult decision there is. To find him a home. That should be easy enough, those of us who DON’T KNOW, think. A few tours, a serious talk with our loved one to explain what’s happening, and bam. Boom. Done.
Well, it’s not like that. There’s Medicare, Medicaid, the state, and official diagnoses to navigate. Bank accounts and bills to be re-routed, a house to be sold. So much more that my mom can’t even begin to explain it all to me. And those are just logistics.
The emotional aspect? Try telling a failing father that he has to leave the home he’s shared with his beloved wife and move somewhere where he knows no one, and taking him away from somewhere that he has his best memories. The place where the memories he does have left live. Try telling your capable, strong, hard-working dad that he needs help.
Try leaving your family and moving across the country to care for your father, leaving your husband and children and grand-children. Or relocating permanently, to be there for him and visit him. Not getting the opportunity to care for your own life, or even yourself, while all of your energy is poured into helping a parent.
And then try being judged for that. Maybe the other family members feel guilty that they aren’t doing more? So they put you down while they make you responsible, because obviously you should be the ones. You don’t have jobs, so you are the obvious choices to take on this task. Maybe that’s what they need to do to live with the fact that they aren’t helping.
I know there is family that don’t have the resources and I know they are supportive. I hope that they don’t feel badly for that, we know they would help if they could. But never should a negative word be spoken about those who are.
So for all the care-givers out there, and for my mom and my aunt. Remember Helga as you help. When it gets hard, when it gets bad and when you feel all alone. Your loved one could be Helga.
What you have taken on is hard to describe, at least adequately. I know I haven’t even scratched the surface with this. But don’t fear for your children and grand-children. We do not suffer for your sacrifice. We love you and support you, even while we miss you. We love Grandpa, too.
And we are all so proud! Proud of your strength, your hard working minds and hands, and your loving, unselfish hearts.
Love always and forever,
Celena and Co.