Coping with Dementia
By Sherry Gavanditti
For Eileen Kollins the most heart-breaking part of slowly losing her mother to dementia is remembering who she used to be.
“You come to accept the step of dementia they are in; then comes the next step, and the next, and you begin to really fear the next step,” she said.
At the age of 93, Florence is losing her short term memory, and shows few signs of remembering that she had another life-- not so long ago. She was vibrant, decisive, organized. She was a dedicated employee, a wife, a mother, and a happy, intelligent, active woman who earned her undergraduate degree, Phi Beta Kappa, from Northwestern University and her Master’s Degree from Columbia University , both in social work. She was the Director of Volunteers at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland , Ohio . She worked there during the move to its current location, a time of tremendous growth.
Now, she calls the Menorah Park campus home, living at one of its senior living communities, Stone Gardens Assisted Living. She plays solitaire and Scrabble with her daughter, attended her granddaughters’ weddings, and interacts with her great-granddaughter with smiles and giggles.
Still, as Eileen looks at pictures of earlier times, she can’t help but cry. She mostly fears what the next phase of life will mean for her mother, and for her. She mourns losing the special connection she and her mother used to have.
Their roles are reversed, and time seems to be traveling backwards. Eileen is the care-giver, and her mother is no longer independent and sometimes unaware of the world around her. Eileen is grateful that her mother has become more passive rather than aggressive and angry, as many dementia patients do.
“My biggest concern is how much more deterioration there will be before she passes,” Eileen said, feeling a tinge of guilt for the way things had to be. “She always said she wouldn’t want to be alive like this.”
It didn’t happen overnight. For the past several years, Eileen has watched her mother’s memory and personality disappear. The first tell-tale signs of repeating questions and forgetting small things didn’t seem as scary as the latter degeneration of her mother’s awareness of who she is.
Eileen’s dad, Florence’s husband Emanuel, passed away in 2000. Florence made it through the pain of the tragedy. In 2002 Florence broke her hip. She seemed to make it through that as well, but shortly afterward, her mental faculties didn’t seem as sharp, according to Eileen.
Just seven years later, Florence’s life is scheduled to the hour, and Eileen’s life is totally different from what she may have imagined just 10 years ago. She visits with her mother five to six days per week. She lives nearby now, after moving back to Cleveland to be nearer to her.
At 7:30 a.m., Florence is awakened by nurse’s aides, given her medication, and taken to breakfast. She is taken to lunch, and to dinner. She is taken to the on-site beauty shop in her building. When the day is done, she is put to bed. All of these things are accomplished with the help of aides that are hired for 12 hours each day to enhance services already provided by Stone Gardens .
“If I didn’t have an aide to help her, she wouldn’t know what to do,” Eileen said, expressing gratitude that Stone Gardens if very supportive of her desire for her mother to remain where she is most comfortable. “ Florence is aging in place.”
Spending five to six days a week running back and forth to be with her mother means Eileen’s life is tightly scheduled, part of the sacrifice she makes to ensure she is doing all she can for her mother.
“It’s not easy, but this is a reality in my life right now. I understand that this is where I need to be.
I feel fortunate she is here and I can keep her here. I can’t imagine people who don’t have a place like this. It would be a different quality of life.”
Eileen comes every Friday to share the Jewish Sabbath and traditional meal not only with her mom, but with everyone. She takes the time to make Kiddush (blessing over the wine) with each resident. Due to this special act, the residents have affectionately come to call her “the wine lady.”
Through tears, Eileen acknowledges there’s not much more one can do other than accepting the way things are.
“Just do the best you can to make sure your loved ones are secure and safe. And be there for them,” she offers as advice for others in the same situation.
That’s what Eileen does. She spends as much time as she can with her. She has three children of her own and avoids thinking what would happen if she too came down with the debilitating disease. She glad to have what little time she has left with her mom, and she feels confident she is doing the right thing for her.
“She is in a safe, secure place. People are kind to her. We are fortunate we can keep her here,” Eileen said.
from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine