Saturday, January 19, 2013


Dabbing napkins at our lips after finishing tuna salad, spinach soup, and the ubiquitous melon slices, Mom and I sat in the dining hall a little while. I grumbled to myself about why food service providers cannot seem to come up with any fruits besides melons (Hello? Perhaps you’ve heard of apples, pears, bananas, grapes?) when I was distracted by a dapper elderly gentleman nearby droning on to a trapped tablemate about generations of his German ancestors. “Gee, his voice is loud,” I commented. Mom hadn’t heard him. I found it a bit hard to hear her soft voice because of his, but we both felt too relaxed to get up and go. Other than this man, his victim, and four gray-haired folks playing cards, aided by light from a small goose-neck lamp they’d brought, Mom and I were the only diners left.

From my vantage point, I could see two of the long hallways leading to apartments, the little gift shop and mail room. As I watched residents come and go, I noted to Mom that it must be “argyle day” since I’d seen several argyle sweaters. I happened to be wearing one myself; maybe that’s why I noticed. She replied that argyle is popular this year, and she has an argyle sweater, too. I didn’t mention my socks were also argyle.

“I’ve been looking at old family photos, and there’s one of Dad and his dad on the beach in Connecticut,” I began. “Grandpa’s got his usual beret on, and Dad’s wearing a hat with some kind of decoration on it. I don’t remember it and can’t figure out what kind of hat it is.”

Mom said she knew the photo and wondered if it was a hat she’d bought him. “You know, when Dad and I met in the forties, all the men wore fedoras. But once hats became passé, Dad no longer liked to wear any hats—until he retired and took up tennis—then he wore tennis hats.” I nodded. I have Dad’s tennis hat in my car so that it will be readily available to shade his eyes when I wheel him outdoors in summer. I asked her if the hat in the old picture was one she had bought him.

“In the fall of the year we lived in Connecticut, Dad was invited to be on a panel at a meeting in Ann Arbor or Detroit, I forget, so Grandma came to babysit you kids, and Dad and I drove all night. When we got to Toledo, we went to the hospital to visit my father, who was there for a gallbladder problem. When we walked into his hospital room, he cried … My father cried because we had come.” Mom was quiet for a moment. Her clear, cornflower-blue eyes seemed to be seeing the scene afresh. “Then we went on to Ann Arbor or Detroit, and after the panel discussion, we got back in the car and drove all night to get back to Connecticut.”

“So it was on that trip that you bought that hat for Dad?” Mom returned from her reverie and strained to remember where that particular hat had come from. I wondered where that particular reverie had come from. She finally mentioned she always liked him in hats.

From there conversation wandered back into passé fashion trends, especially women wearing hats, and always dresses or skirts. She said that one frigid winter day in 1966 she sensibly sent my sister to sixth grade wearing smart, wool flannel slacks to protect her from the cold on her long walk to school. The school immediately called her to say my sister would not be allowed into class until my mother brought a dress for her.

Vacuum cleaners whizzing around our table signaled an end to our lingering after lunch. We left to drive the few blocks to her house, where she explained to me how to take care of Dad’s bills “in case anything should happen to” her. It was pretty simple, but I’m grateful she told me how she does it. I sat on the floor and organized papers into piles: nursing home bills, prescription bills, laundry service bills, long-term-insurance payments. Paper-clipping the piles, we put them away. Earlier we had decided that it would be unwise to make our usual visit to Dad because of the nursing home’s dire warnings about rampant flu strains there and all the quarantined hallways, and we would instead play a game. But when I asked what game she wanted to play, she blurted, “I’m worried about Dad. When I was there the other day, his eyes were all red.” When I volunteered to dash over and check on him, she urged me to.

I walked back past the dining hall to the nursing home. Bracing against the wind (in my hood and warm slacks, haha), I questioned how smart it was for me to be defying the nursing home’s warnings but hoped with a wing and a prayer and a mask grabbed at the front desk that I’d escape unscathed. Further, I decided I would relish this visit. I would wear not only my eyewitness-report-to-mom hat, but also my light-up-dad’s-day hat.

Once I wheeled Dad into his room in the Alzheimer’s wing to listen to his favorite music cassettes, I could see his eyes looked painfully bloodshot. My mother had requested I feel his forehead for a fever, and his temp seemed normal. I went and got a nurse, who told me his eyes weren’t bloodshot because there was no hematoma. I asked her why they were so red then, and she said she’d have the doctor look at his eyes. Perfect. His brown eyes smiled though as he gyrated his hands to Boots Randolph and Billy Joel. Was it a Talking Heads song he danced in his chair to? First one shoulder jutted out, then the other. Then he shrugged them to the beat. Then he pulsed them out again. So cute. Was it when Crystal Gayle sang, “When I dream, I dream of you” that he swayed dreamily? What a delight to see him responding to music with pleasure. He has so few pleasures left—indeed so few responses.

I told him about the picture of him and his father on the Connecticut beach. No sign of understanding in his eyes. I yammered on anyway, reacquainting him with the fact that his father was an artist who liked to wear berets, trying to describe the unusual hat he himself was wearing, finally promising I’d bring the photo to show him someday. Then I launched into ages, figuring he was almost 40 in that picture and his father would have been in his early sixties, about my age now. Since Dad had been a mathematician, sometimes he shows signs of understanding when I talk about numbers. He didn’t today.

Now it was his suppertime, so I wheeled him to the Alzheimer’s hall dining area where the nurse greeted him with a tiny paper cup containing the pills my mother had just taught me how to pay for. The brisk wind carried me back to my mother’s, where I assured her Dad seemed not to have the flu but the doctor would check his eyes. And more good news: Although many wings still struggle with four strains of viruses, the Alzheimer’s wings that have been on lockdown for more than a month have now been cleared because they have no more flu. I had made an appointment for Dad to get a haircut Monday, which pleased Mom. Since he doesn’t wear hats, she likes his hair to look nice.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Humor Therapy

The upside of a prolonged elder care season is that you have your mother and/or father with you longer. Although you love your parent(s) and the joy of their company, you also become aware of a dark cloak of sadness draping over your shoulders—and you can’t shrug it off. Even when you take a small or large vacation from elder care activities, that cloak weighs on you. This season is rough on our parents, too, as they grieve their losses. We all need intentional humor therapy!

I carry with me the September 2012 issue of Reader’s Digest, which contains (and here I quote from the cover) 128 hilarious jokes, extra cartoons, and best lines by Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Joan Rivers, Conan O’Brien, and more. Sometimes I read the jokes to myself and sometimes with my mother. If I pick fairly simple quips, I can sometimes induce a smile from my dad. I also haunt the comedy sections of my local libraries’ DVD departments. Every few weeks, I just have to watch a comedy movie. And at least once a week, I Google “funny YouTubes” or names of comedians I especially like. I would laugh listening to Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, or Jimmy Fallon reading the phone book, and I’ve seen some of their silly YouTubes again and again, and I still laugh.

The power of laughter to help heal, manage stress, and energize is gaining traction through scientific research. Here is a link to a WebMD article outlining laughter’s benefits:

What do you do to laugh yourself silly?

Monday, January 7, 2013

DABDA Grief Stages

These last few years, I have taken an unscientific approach to grief. Basically, if I cry when I think of losing any part of my parents, I’m grieving. If I don’t cry, I think I’m not grieving. Except I know I’m not okay because sadness still weighs on my heart even when my eyes do not spout tears. But I tend not to analyze much or name my feelings. Sometimes I wonder if that might be helpful.

Working in the 1960s with terminally ill people, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross hypothesized there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (DABDA). Although her hypothesis has been criticized by other researchers, it has also been applied to any form of personal loss. Also, the suggestion is not that a person feels DABDA sequentially, but that he or she probably feels DABDA multiple times during the grief process.

Let’s take me and my father’s living in a nursing home, for example. At first, I was so angry, I was numb, disbelieving, denying, trying to figure out some other way. Fast-forward one year to his first anniversary there—after much boomeranging off rocky hillsides of the grief valley—I’d finally accepted his new reality. Or so I thought. The anniversary dumped oppressive, debilitating sadness on me. Then a let’s-make-the-best-of-this acceptance won over the next nine months; now I’m in the throes of bargaining again … Isn’t there some other way?

Now, with my mother’s health being more newly compromised, my feelings of incipient loss are acute. Here we go again. Since my DABDA patterns will no doubt be different for her, how will I manage two different grief tracks? I don’t know if it will help to consciously recognize denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as I plod forward. My sense is that with so many practical challenges ahead for my parents, my energies are best focused on simply taking each step as it comes and deciding where I need to be proactive. Remaining gentle with everyone’s feelings—my parents have their own losses to process, too—seems more important than naming feelings. I don’t know; does self-care suffer if you aren’t aware of your stages of grief (DABDA or whatever model you prefer)? What do you think?