Much has been written about having the dreaded talk with octogenarian Mom and/or Dad about bringing paid or family caregivers into their home or having them move to an Assisted Living Community. Rarely does a parent come to you and say, “Hey, I need to move into a studio apartment with a pull-cord on the walls that I can crawl to when I fall down.”
In the past five years, the topic of family caregiving, about which I wrote in my book, The Heart Way (OSP, 2006), has come into the mainstream. I know all about the agony of talking with Mom and Dad about moving out of their beloved big family home, about having 24/7 care on site, about giving up the car keys and about end-of-life planning. Thankfully, I survived all those awful conversations because, even through tears, my parents and I could laugh about these unpleasant topics.
Last night, my husband and I went to see Silver Linings Playbook, a movie about a young man suffering from bipolar disorder. My mom was diagnosed as bipolar when she was in her late 60’s. Our family had known for years that Mom had some kind of mood disorder. When she went into an extended period of serious depression and had to be hospitalized, we knew she had a bigger problem than mood swings. She loved her manic episodes because she had so much energy and passion for absolutely everything, including a fight. Like Patrick, the young man in the film, Mom refused to take her medications for a long time after diagnosis because she didn’t like the way they made her feel. I couldn’t blame her. But I made the tough choice to hold her feet to the fire along with my own. She caved at the thought of readmission to the psychiatric hospital, doctors found the right med’s and Mom was pretty stable for the rest of her life, although she could be an extreme diva.
One of my lifelong girlfriends had a tall, beautiful mom like mine, but sans diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’ll call the mom Agnes, for the sake of privacy. When our mothers were in their 80’s and had moved into different Assisted Living Communities, we noticed they both delighted in being the belles of the ball. They were the women who attracted all the geezers at every Happy Hour, dance or sing-along party. We called our moms “the divas in Depends.” The nickname was especially appropriate for Agnes.
When Agnes moved from her large condo in Newport Beach into a small assisted living apartment, she was still smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately, it was a no-smoking community and her second-floor apartment didn’t have a balcony. When the staff noticed the smell of smoke in the apartment, they called my girlfriend to come and talk with her mom. The conversation didn’t go well, but my girlfriend confiscated all the smoking paraphernalia – cigarettes, matches, lighters, ashtrays. The next day, Agnes tried to smuggle cigarettes and matches into the apartment, but this time the staff just removed them. A few days later, my girlfriend’s sister-in-law visited Agnes and smelled cigarette smoke. Coyly, she approached Agnes with a question, “How is it you are still smoking in here when they’ve taken all your cigarettes and matches?”
“Easy,” said Agnes with a wink. “I’ll show you.”
Agnes proceeded to the kitchenette (no stove or oven) and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the back of a drawer. She took out a cigarette and put it between her lips, then pushed the button down on her electric toaster to start it without any bread. Next she grabbed some metal tongs and used them to lift a tissue out of a little box on the counter top. Agnes lowered the tissue into the toaster, it caught fire and – voila – she pulled it out, blazing at the end of her tongs and used it to light her cigarette. Proudly she walked into the bathroom, turned on the fan and smoked. Completely stunned, her daughter-in-law asked, “How are you getting the cigarettes in here when they check your purse and bags after you get off the bus?”
“Easy,” Agnes said again. “I smuggle them in my diaper.”
The next day, Agnes had no more toaster, tongs, hairdryer – anything that could start a fire. Fortunately the community stopped the “police action” short of diaper inspections. I’m guessing this kind of thing happens at assisted living and skilled nursing facilities everywhere, every day.
This is not a story you’re probably going to hear from Pulitzer Prize-winning social commentator Ellen Goodman, one of my all-time favorite writers who has lately been weighing in on the topic of tough conversations families need to have about aging. But it could find its way into a movie someday. I’m simply sharing it to remind you that keeping your sense of humor and invoking it when caring for a family member with any kind of disability, or while having one of those painful conversations with a diva in Depends, is a wonderful tool to keep your sanity. In my experience, it’s a key to moving through those difficult times and finding the silver lining.