The mind is a mystery. My mother had Alzheimer’s before we knew what it was. Three things seem to out last memory and logic: humor, music, and faith.
When mom was living with us, one day when I was stressed out doing bookkeeping at the kitchen counter, she insisted on starting dinner. So, finally I put a large pot of water on for corn on the cob and a small pot of water for one package of frozen broccoli and told her to just put them in when the water came to a boil. She called me over later saying, “Something’s wrong, this doesn’t look right.” She had put the corn in the small pot where it was now dry and burning and the broccoli was in free float in the huge pot of water. My response was not kind or spiritual. I shook my head in despair and exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” Quick as a flash, she responded, “Call on someone you know!”
Some years after her death, I was leading devotionals at a nursing home. I kept wondering as I spoke, whether I should call a nurse to check pulses, since most of my “listeners” seemed comatose. But when we started singing the old hymns, they all came to life and knew every word of every hymn.
It may be music or it could be faith. Because one of my favorite nursing home stories is about an elderly woman whose memory was failing. A caregiver was helping her get into her nightgown, when the woman asked her, “What is my name? I seem to have forgotten who I am.” Before the caregiver could reply, the woman smiled and pointed to a picture of Jesus on the wall, and said, “Never mind, he knows who I am and that’s all that matters.”
My mother came to live with us having what we now know as Alzheimer’s. At the time we thought she was just becoming a little crazier with age. Her twin sister’s children had always called her “Aunt Nutsy,” if that gives you a clue. About the third Christmas she was with us, I took her shopping at K Mart for presents for the grandchildren. She was becoming pretty confused by that time, so it turned into a major ordeal. She kept gathering things which were totally inappropriate for the children’s ages. Because my husband had recently started over in business during a recession, money was in short supply. I hated for her to waste money on things no one would want. After a half hour of increasingly less patient persuasion attempts, I was cross-eyed with a headache.
I was about to abandon the whole project and whisper “fire!” in her ear and hustle her out to the car, when what to my squinty eyes did appear, but a blue light special on flannel night gowns . Lack of money had forced us to depend on a wood burning stove for heat in a house totally unsuited for it. So sleeping bags, though cumbersome, had become quite appealing. For a mere three dollars, I might dare to sleep unencumbered enough to turn over. I left mother playing with a musical bear in my hurry to beat the crowd to the treasure. About fifteen women were digging furiously through the pile already. By the time I finally elbowed boobs and stomped toes enough to reach the blue light, I realized mom had disappeared. So I just grabbed something pink and soft. Then hunched over and clutching my prize to my breast, I burrowed my way back out. When I tracked Mom down, she had again swapped all my suggested purchases for toys for tots, not teenagers. I gave up and just propelled her and the basket to the checkout line. As I lifted the pink nightgown onto the counter, I realized it had a lace trimmed neckline that plunged to the waist. It was sort of like something sexy with feet. I laughed all the way home, tension and pain finally melting away. Then while agreeing cheerfully with mom as she admired her purchases, I had visions of cold nights, but hot times, in my sexy flannel nightgown. I call that Grace,
What kind of God are you, dying like that?
I want a real God, a “fix it “ God,
not one that gets himself crucified.
You’re just as helpless as the rest of us.
Here we are dying together.
What a weird way to save a world!
Such sorrow pierced your mother.
Yet, she didn’t run away.
She stayed there suffering too.
Was she filled with a mother’s self doubt?
“Could she have done anything?
Would it have made a difference?”
I watched my mother die by inches.
Her dignity destroyed
by fourteen years of Alzheimer’s.
I’ve seen my children make choices
that would cost them for years.
I could only ask, “Am I to blame?”
I listened to my friend whose mind
had become her enemy.
I heard her pain, yet could not help.
I hate being helpless, not good enough
or smart enough to help
even the ones I love the most.
Not long ago, you did miracles
even in my own small life.
Now I just see our brokenness.
You are a Good Friday God.
I think about the expectations
you gave your Apostles.
Only Judas got the picture.
How disillusioned he became.
He must have felt that you
were betraying them all.
Sometimes I’m just like Judas,
recognizing that we
are all sheep being shorne.
I’m even as cowardly
as Peter in asking
more or less, “Jesus who?”
But I know as well as John did
that your love is perfect.
That we need nothing more.
Even though like doubting Thomas
I fear a hard ending,
you are my Lord and my God,
my only God.
So I ask for grace to follow
though through the cross you call,
my Good Friday God.
I am seventy-eight, but though forgetful, I’m reasonably functional and can still drive. I have a friend who is ninety-two, another who is only seventy, and one who is seventy-seven. All live either with a working daughter or alone.
None of them drive anymore and the seventy-seven year old seemed to be sinking into severe dementia the last couple of years. She lives an hour away from me and I have been knee deep in grandchildren with school out, and when I finally grab some time to call her to see if I can take her to lunch, she says she is too tired or feeling badly. But, I saw her today and she was as sharp as a whip. She has a care-giver now and had played bridge yesterday and was very excited about playing in a tournament tomorrow. She explained all the challenges to the brain from playing bridge to me. She didn’t need to just get out, she needed something that challenged her and gave her a sense of accomplishment.
At sixty-five the seventy year old was mistakenly diagnosed as having inoperable lung cancer and told she might have only five years to live. She is a talented artist. But, she lives alone and the last few years she has gone from depressed to the point of being suicidal to having frequent panics about her health that involve trips to the ER. Her only daughter is a very successful career woman and is often out of the country.
The ninety-two year old broke her hip two years ago and sits home alone out in the country about twenty-five minutes away from both town and me, because all her children work. She struggles with depression, but has no interests or talents to keep her mentally stimulated. She reads some, but her eyesight is failing and makes it difficult.
I have spent the last four or five years either visiting with them or taking them in pairs out to lunch, shopping, to museums or to women’s study groups. But as each has become more unsteady, using canes or walkers, I have needed to take them each separately because of fear of one of them falling. My life includes a husband who still works and has health issues, and eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, some of whom have handicaps, so I try to spend quality time with them. I have a blog with posts that I hope to turn into a book. At seventy-five I started doing some very small gigs as a stand-up comic. I lead worship services once a month and several times a year give presentations to women’s groups I’m in. What I am seeing is that when I am busy elsewhere, often there’s no one to help these women get out of the house, and they go down hill rapidly both mentally and physically.
Sadly, since my husband and I have a chance to travel abroad this fall, and there are a lot of preparations and planning involved, lately I have less and less time for my friends. I feel both guilty and resentful. The women were there for me in earlier stages of my life and I want to be there for them. But often I have to neglect home, husband and my writing trying to be there for them.
Our small church women’s group has one member dying with ALS, another with early onset dementia, several are shut in’s with debilitating physical issues, two women are newly widowed, another woman’s husband has Alzheimer’s and a couple of women are nursing their husbands back to health after major surgeries. There are more women needing help than there are helpers.
I was all for women’s freedom to have careers and get equal pay for their work. I don’t think all women are designed to be mothers anymore than all men are designed to be plumbers. But now even women who have no desire to have a career need to work because the economy has adjusted to two paycheck families. There are simply no family caregivers anymore.
Sadly my three friends didn’t see a need to become computer and internet savvy and now it’s probably too late for them to feel brave enough to try. I think this is the easiest way for the women coming along right behind us to prepare for a day when they may be home-bound.
Even the buses created to take the elderly to doctors, grocery stores and Senior Centers are challenging. Some have backs that let down for wheel chairs, but are not really easy for someone on a walker or using a cane. In rural areas the fees can be an obstacle, particularly for taking people to a more urban area for medical care. The timing for people going different places often leaves sick or crippled people waiting literally hours to get home.
Our medical miracles are keeping us alive, but our options and quality of life are diminishing. This is the challenge the fifty year olds of today will soon be facing.
In old age, the life question, “Why am I here?” becomes, “Why am I still here?”
In the past fifteen years scientists have discovered that the natural human life span
may be one hundred and twenty years or more. I’m not sure if this is good news or bad news!
Does the Gospel message have any good news for the challenges of later life?
Many people have conscientiously lived the Gospel message, that it is better to give than to
receive all their lives, so they find it difficult to figure out how to answer the call, “Come, follow
me,” when they are flat on their back, stuck in a wheelchair, in pain, and dependent on family
or nursing home care.
I’ve become convinced that following Jesus in our later years is a completely different
call. Jesus does not limit the “Come Follow Me” to his years of healing the sick, feeding the
hungry, and taking the Good News of God’s love to others. It includes following Him, like loyal,
doubting Thomas to Jerusalem, where we know that in worldly terms, things will not go well.
Jesus was in God’s accelerated class. What He learned from His experiences on Good
Friday may take the rest of us years.
Through my years in a wheelchair, I experienced things that I never would have, if I
were walking under my own power. Painful and challenging as these were, they were learning
experiences. Shocks do get our attention.
Shock One: was being imprisoned. I could no longer go either when or where I wanted.
I was helpless and dependent on others.
Shock Two: was that my church community pretty much went about their busy lives without
me. I felt abandoned even by my Christian family.
Shock Three: Though blessed with free air travel abroad, I discovered that the handicapped
are literally hated in many countries. (Note: Many people were kind in these countries, but the negative experiences were a shock.) In the Czech Republic, I was hissed at and we were forced
off the sidewalks into the streets and even out into the rain by middle-aged, middle-class
looking women. In Lucerne, Switzerland a taxi driver with a trunk easily spacious enough for the
wheelchair, vehemently and arrogantly refused to take us from the airport.
In a two story museum in Paris, we were told that the elevator was out of order, though we
could see workers using it. In Vienna, the manager of our small hotel refused to help
us find a safe place on the ground floor for the wheelchair that wouldn’t fit into the tiny
The first few times I experienced this kind of rejection, I cried at night realizing that it didn’t
matter to these people, whether I was a good person, smart, talented, or had even achieved
things. I was rejected, because in their eyes I was defective, and that probably threatened to
force them to recognize their own vulnerability as human beings. These experiences made me
feel terribly naked and vulnerable out on the streets among hostile strangers. In fact, we would
go blocks out of our way, when we spotted groups of young skin heads on the street.
Shock Four: When we had to struggle to get me and the wheelchair up long flights of stairs
while hurrying to make a connecting train, no one offered any assistance, some even
angrily pushed past us. Those days left me with both a great deal of physical pain and the
emotional pain of feeling so universally rejected.
But grace came in Prague in a huge ancient cathedral. As we toured the cathedrals of Europe
several things struck me. One: the only people actually using them for prayer were the old,
mostly women. Two: The Catholic ones were filled with gold and silver ornaments and
elaborate tombs of Popes and Bishop, the Anglican/Episcopal ones were filled with gold and
silver and elaborate tombs of Kings and Queens and other nobility. The Presbyterian one in
Scotland was a little less gilded, but no less ornate and filled with the tombs of warriors.
In Prague the cathedral not only had many gilded angels, ornaments, and tombs, but one
room with walls almost completely covered with embedded semi-precious stones.
My son wanted to climb to the top of the bell tower and my husband was taking photos of all the
glitter. It was jam packed with tourists, so they parked me in a dim unadorned corner without
any people in it. I was newly wounded by my experiences of rejection and when my son and
husband were gone a long time, I began to feel depressed and sorry for myself. I started
looking around for something that represented the love of God, not the silver and gold in
honor of men. Finally, I looked up at the wall behind me. There was a life size wooden crucifix
with the body of Jesus right over me. We were alone together in the darkness, since the crowd
was entranced by the silver and gold and the famous. I remembered a quote from Paul Caludell, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with his presence.”
Somehow in that moment, I experienced a oneness with Him. We were in this together. I
was not alone and never would be.
God chose, through Jesus, to experience our loss of purpose, imprisonment, falling
under the weight of the cross, needing the help of strangers, being
stripped of image, being rejected by the world for vulnerability,
being abandoned by friends, suffering physical and mental pain that makes the minutes
seem like hours and the hours like eternity, and even finally feeling abandoned by God.
Yet, still saying, “ God, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
I knew then, that He is not only with me and all of us, but He is in us, experiencing
everything through us. Right then, right now, and always. He told us that whatever is done to
even the least of us is done to Him. And in the helplessness of old age, we are finally freed to
accept being the least, those totally dependent on God. We are not alone, ever. And
when that becomes more important to us, than all the losses we mourn, I think we get to go
I have been creating and leading devotionals at a nursing home for about a year and a half. This is a rich experience in every way. Speaking to a group of people, most of whom are comatose or deaf, is humbling to say the least. And spending time with a dear friend there, who is losing it mentally, triggers memories of my mother’s journey into the darkness of Alzheimer’s.
Sometimes the caregivers and I share a moment of gentle humor, that brings a tiny sunbeam into the darkness of the situation. It’s really the only way you can persevere in this kind of situation.
Interestingly enough, with my mom, flashes of her own humor would surface unexpectedly. When she was still living with us, she would want to help me, though she was no longer really competent. One day I was working at home at the counter in the kitchen. She kept offering to start dinner for me, so I finally, to just get some time to focus on finishing my work, put a large pot of water on to boil for six ears of corn and a small pot of water on for a pack of frozen broccoli. I told her to put them in when the water came to a boil. A while later, she said, “Eileen, something doesn’t look right.” So, I stopped reluctantly to check it out. She had put the small amount of broccoli in the huge pot of water and all the ears of corn in the small pot of water, which had all boiled away.
I said irritably, “Oh, my God!”
Without a blink’s hesitation she replied, “Call on somebody you know!”
After years of feeling like white noise to family and friends, since starting my blog three months ago, I have been shamelessly exploiting blogging as a way of expressing some of the opinions, insights, and experiences I’ve garnered in seventy-five years of living the questions of life. Now, that I’ve done my share of flooding the blogging world with the pent-up musings of a frustrated guruh wanna be, I’m focusing outward and discovering the amazing riches of exploring the world across all kinds of physical and metaphysical borders through other blogs.
It’s like being able to teleport yourself anywhere immediately and to experience the world through both another’s literal views and their mental viewpoints to far exceed your own limited mind and means. It’s what books , television, and travel have done in the past, except this is on a much more personal level and has the advantages of immediacy, convenience, freedom of choice, and even interaction, all without the need for affluence or influence.
I reread this and it sinks in even more, how mind expanding and world changing the internet is capable of being. Not just for young revolutionaries on the other side of the world, but for people of any age, any gender, any nationality, any religious persuasion, any financial means, any limits, as long as they can get to a library or coffee house that has computers and the internet.
I think if I had the means, I would pour money into making it available to all people in every country. I realize there’s misinformation and poison on it also, but where there are human beings, those exist. In the past, if our immediate environment was limited to that, the possibilities for overcoming it were few. Those possibilities have now exploded exponentially.
I want to mention once again just several of the blogs that I look forward to.
Doctor Dad @ carlocmd.wordpress.com; Beautifully described father-sons relationship, and insights into the daily experience of a caring, committed doctor in a third-world country.
patricklatter.smugmug.com; Vicarious mountain hiking experiences through amazing photography of the awesome landscapes of Canada along with first person commentary on the experience with each photo.
Field Notes from Fatherhood.com; a blog by a teacher in a private English school in Hungary. Excellent on many levels on parenting, teaching from the insider’s view, travel with children.
youllshootyoureyeout-kathy.blogspot.com; delightful travel experiences, laced with touching honest reflections on relating to a beloved father, once a public figure, now suffering from Alzheimer’s.
For humor: (of course) The Bloggess and also maleparentalunit.blogspot.com(one of my sons’ blog, so some prejudice involved.)