I recently moved my 87-year-old mother from independent living to assisted living. It was a tough decision, but she’d had two bad falls and often forgot to wear her life-alert button. I was haunted by images of her in agony on the floor of her apartment where no one could hear her screams. Now there’s someone nearby all the time—much to my relief.
On moving day, a nurse took mom to the dining room to meet her new neighbors while my wife and I organized her belongings. When she returned she looked sad. I asked: “How was dinner?” She replied: “Fine.” I said: “Then why don’t you look fine?” She thought for a moment then, through tears, cried: “They’re all so old! I feel like I’m 105!” It was the first of many times that I’ve been gripped by guilt and doubt, wondering if I was doing the right thing by focusing on her safety at the expense of her freedom.
After a while she began to accept her new life. When I called to ask how she was doing she would say, with an air of resignation: “This is where I belong.”
After a while she began to accept her new life. When I called to ask how she was doing she would say, with an air of resignation: “This is where I belong.” She once called it her “final station” which I’m sure was hard for her to say, and hard for me to hear—coming from this once-vibrant woman who’d sung the lead in “La Boheme” and other operas, and raised four children while working as a bank teller.
Mom’s long-term memory and her sense of humor are still strong. We love to entertain each other with amusing stories from decades ago. But her short-term memory is fading fast. Some days she calls me two or three times. “I just wanted to hear your voice” she says, with no recollection that she called just a short time ago.
I don’t know where all this is heading, but I fear there are similarities to my father. We lost dad nine years ago to Alzheimer’s.
I vividly remember one of the times I drove the three hours to visit him at his care community. I picked up my mother at her condo nearby and she told me to be prepared, that he had taken a turn for the worse. I was relieved when he greeted me a big smile and his usual bear hug. But a few minutes later he leaned over to my mother and nearly shouted: “Who’s that?” She responded: “That’s your son.” He appeared to be stunned, and muttered: “I have a son?!”
But even amid the ravages of Alzheimer’s there can be rare moments of joy. I remember asking him once, while gesturing toward my mother: “Do you know her name?” He looked confused. But when I said: “Do you know who she is?” he grinned like a love-struck teenager and sang out: “That’s my sweetheart!” He then whispered to me: “Someday I’d like to marry her!”
He was experiencing first love all over again. He had been transported, courtesy of Alzheimer’s, to one of the happiest times in his life. And for that moment, I was taken back in time, too.
I often wonder if my mother will follow in my father’s footsteps. But when I‘m with her I do my best to push those thoughts aside. I’d rather focus on our shared memories while we still have them, while cherishing every moment.
Chip Reid is a national correspondent for CBS News.