Whenever I’m asked to name the toughest challenges I’ve had to face, moving my mother to an assisted living facility still tops my list.
My mother and I often argued about many issues, from hairstyles to political candidates. But despite our differences, we had key traits in common: our independent nature and a stubborn devotion to our own homes. Which is why it took all the courage I had to convince Mom that leaving the home she loved was in her best interest.
Diagnosed with vascular dementia in her mid-70s, my widowed mother was already struggling with heart disease and severe hearing loss. Her only child, I was handed full responsibility of her medical care along with a checklist outlining her worrisome diagnosis. I was in my early 50s then – and just beginning to enjoy the freedom of my newly emptied nest after my son’s move to college.
At the time, Mom lived alone in a condo just 10 minutes from my home – a convenient arrangement that worked well for a while. I organized her twice-daily medications, drove her to appointments and paid a nursing companion from our local hospital to assist with errands. The system took some juggling to coordinate, but I managed to keep my mother safe in her own home until her dementia started progressing.
The following year, it was clear that Mom would soon need more care than my husband and I could handle. Often confused, she slipped in the bathtub (twice), burned herself on the stove and locked herself out of her condo often enough to worry her neighbors.
A long talk with my mother’s primary care physician motivated me to make some heart-wrenching decisions: “Start researching senior housing with memory care – now – so you’ll have choices.” The good doctor also asked if I had durable power of attorney (which I did) and reminded me to get the appropriate legal documents in order.
More than anything, I’d hoped my mother would help map the course of her own future. But no matter how tactfully I approached the topic of assisted living, she’d look at me as if I’d asked her to move to the Faroe Islands with nothing but a toothbrush.
“I’m not ready for the old folks’ home,” she’d insist. Regardless, I checked out several senior housing options, then made appointments to discuss my mother’s specific health care needs with admissions staffers.
Meanwhile, I kept revisiting The Dreaded Topic with Mom, offering to schedule tours of the best facilities I’d found. She still refused.
Just as Mom’s doctors had predicted, the decision was made for us – after yet another trip with Mom to the emergency room.
The research I’d done earlier made the next step easier. While Mom recovered at the hospital, my husband and I put a deposit on a partially furnished apartment at an assisted living residence near our home.
A social worker had told me that it’s best to avoid “overexplaining” such a move to dementia patients like my mother. So, once she was discharged, we moved Mom directly into her new residence, reminding her that her health and safety were our primary concern.
I knew the decision was the right one then, yet I still fought waves of tears while I unpacked her clothes and organized the small closet in her new residence. Having spent half a lifetime trying to please my mother, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d betrayed her. Closing the door on Mom’s former home – her former life – would be a grieving process for both of us.
It took a few months for Mom to settle in. Like Dorothy Gale, she periodically asked when she could “go home.” I learned that this wasn’t unusual for new assisted living residents, and that her emotional adjustment would take more time.
But there was comfort in knowing my mother finally had the social life she’d missed while living alone in her condo. She liked the staffers who checked on her frequently in her new residence – and she won a new circle of friends at card games. Best of all, Mom was eating full meals and desserts in a dining room filled with people, which was a healthy change from the bowl of canned soup she’d eat alone in her own kitchen.
Reminders of home and family also helped ease the transition – a carved wooden rooster from her folk art collection; a favorite armchair from her previous home; and a sepia-toned photo of my late father to keep watch on her nightstand.
Still my mom’s best advocate, I visited as often as I could, bringing batteries for her hearing aids or potted tulips for her windowsill. I checked in with her nursing staff daily.
But thanks to assisted living, I was finally relieved of the lion’s share of caregiving. I soon found more energy to rebuild my changing relationship with Mom – and more time to help her feel at home again.