A friend called to offer condolences yesterday concerning my mother’s death. Having cared for her mother for several years, she reminded me that people who have not been through the experience don’t realize the amount of energy expended. Then she added, “At least you will have new energy now that you are done being a caregiver.”
Not quite. As I explained to my friend, my caregiving has just begun.
Just the day before her call Ralph and I had gone to the Memory Center at Emory for his six-month check up. Although it did feel a bit odd heading out only two days after my mother’s death, these appointments are like gold and I was not about to re-schedule.
It was a rough visit. Although Ralph did not have to take the big battery of tests this time, our NP Stephanie did one brief test, giving him a name and address that he was to remember. A few minutes later he had no clue what she had told him to remember. She offered a clue that might have tipped him off that the last name was his, but it evidently didn’t help since he made a wild guess.
This small memory failure felt more demoralizing than all the previous results we have received over the last 18 months. It was so stark: no retrieval was possible. The box where he’d stored the memory was simple empty and he knew it.
Also upsetting, although a matter of stating the obvious, was Stephanie’s warning about driving. While Stephanie reiterated that Ralph’s motor skills and problem solving are still fine, she said he should limit driving alone because she’s had “dozens” of patients at his level of cognitive ability who became dangerously disoriented when something on a usual route changed; confusion combined with anxiety caused them to drive off course, sometimes for hundreds of miles. “We don’t want to lose you,” she said gently. The truth is that I already do the driving when we’re going anywhere together these days including his last two fishing trips to Florida—actually, the time before last he drove, took a wrong term and got us lost before I used my phone GPS; I drove us down last time. We hadn’t talked about why I’m the driver though and now it was out there on the table. Stephanie agreed he could still drive himself to Atlanta for his weekly therapy appointment, but the writing is on the wall. And Ralph could read it perfectly well. He looked beaten down even as he smiled in jovial agreement.
Then there was the discussion of activities and depression. Ralph’s lack of activity worries her. She has increased his dose of anti-depressant and he reluctantly agreed to sign up for an art class and to go out with me one night a week. This was major: although Ralph, who has some genuine talent, always said he was looking forward to painting in earnest once he had some time, he has not picked up a pencil or brush for two years. I have nagged him about classes of course, but he has refused. I’m glad he has finally agreed, but his meekness was disconcerting. I know that my own emotions are on edge as I deal with my mother’s death, but I could tell that Ralph was processing Stephanie’s words differently than he has in past meetings.
As soon as we were back in the car, he turned to me and asked, “How long do you think I have?”
To live with a modicum of dignity and awareness was the unspoken second half of the question.I answered the only way I could. “I don’t know.”
Then I drove him home and dropped him off before heading to the funeral home to pick up my mother’s ashes.