Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor, mothers and credit where it's due

I've never cried at the nomination of a Supreme Court justice, so weeping at the presentation of Sonia Sotomayor surprised me. I was sitting with my own mother when President Obama made the announcement and we both listened as Sotomayor said, “I stand on the shoulders of countless people, yet there is one extraordinary person who is my life aspiration. That person is my mother, Celina Sotomayor.

"My mother has devoted her life to my brother and me. And as the president mentioned, she worked often two jobs to help support us after dad died. I have often said that I am all I am because of her, and I am only half the woman she is.”

I'm never quite sure how much my mother understands, but she looked directly at the Supreme Court nominee and said, “Giving credit where credit is due—I like that in a daughter, whether it's due or not.” And then she smiled impishly.

I left the room.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's a small world after all

My world has become so small.

The days are marked by the tiny triumphs and tragedies of caring for my mother. Until today, the tragedies--the broken hip, the fading memory--far outweighed the triumphs.

"What day is this?" she asks.

And minutes later:
"Is today Sunday?" she asks.
"No, it's Tuesday."

And minutes later:
"Was I at your house yesterday?" she asks.
"No, you were at my house Sunday."
"So Monday was the 16th?"
"No, the 16th was Saturday."
"So what's today?"
"What does the paper say?"
"I don't know. What does it say?"

And on and on until I want to scream. I don't. But I do snap. "What does the calendar say???" I ask, extra question marks of exapseration in my voice.
"I don't know. I can't see that far."
"Look at the one near your chair."
"It's Monday."
"Right, Tuesday." My blood pressure comes back down.
"The 26th."
"NO, IT IS THE 19TH." My blood pressure goes back up.
She can't understand why this is frustrating to me. In fact, in my least charitable moments--and there are many--I know she understands nothing about her predicament and hence mine. Worse, I believe she doesn't want to.

She reminds me of David Finch, the writer of Sunday's "Modern Love" in the New York Times, who wrote that his Asperger's syndrome is marked by extreme egocentricity, an inability to emphathize and an inexplicable interest in obscure topics.

My mother isn't suffering dementia. She has geriatric Asperger's.

So this explains why she is so demanding, why she can't see my exhaustion and why the calendar is so endlessly interesting.

This explains why she isn't my mother anymore.

It doesn't, of course, but it's so much easier than believing she has dementia, so much less painful than believing she just doesn't care.

After another of our unending rounds of medical appointments, we return to her apartment. She is exhausted by the effort of getting there. I am exhausted by the effort of engineering it. We return home and both fall asleep, she in her chair, bundled up in blankets, me on the day bed, uncovered. I am cold but I don't care.

I hear her get up because I am never really asleep, not really. She's off to the bathroom, her other favorite room in the house. Besides the calendar, she seems intrigued by her bodily functions and her hemorrhoids, which hurt her and make her cranky. I have dubbed it "'Rhoid Rage." I think this is hilarious. She thinks I am insensitive. I revert to my 7-year-old self: "Takes one to know one," I tell her.

Tap, click, click. Tap, click, click. She is coming back. I can tell where she is by the number of taps and clicks from her walker. But this time she's not running the usual pattern; I hear extra clicking and tapping. I don't open my eyes, but I'm listening.

She is in front of me, and I feel a sudden warmth as she spreads a blanket on top of me. Then she taps and clicks back to her chair, sits down and pulls the covers over herself.

I keep my eyes closed. It's better that way.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Items That Help an Elderly Parent

I want to tell you about a couple of things that will make your life easier.

Item No. 1: The telephone receiver—and I don't mean for a landline. This gadget is shaped like the telephone receiver of yore but it plugs into the headphone jack of a cellphone. The familiar elongated U-shaped tube allows my mom to talk comfortably. (She has digital hearing aids and they create terrible feedback that make it impossible for her to hear.)
I found the one above at left at for about $30, plus shipping. (You can find other vendors by Googling "retro handset" and cell phone.) It was a godsend when she was in a hospital room without a phone and my sisters wanted to talk with her. She could hear and felt comfortable, and the sisters could hear her. We still use it when I get a cell call and the caller wants to say hi.

Item No. 2: A lightweight, folding wheelchair (above, right). The first time I needed to take my mom to the doctor I was petrified I was going to drop her, but I should have been more worried about picking up the loaner wheelchair without straining my back. (She's not confined to a wheelchair but she does need one occasionally.) I found one at by (It's called Transport Folding Lightweight Wheelchair With Carbon Steel Frame, Dual Handbrakes, Padded Armrests, Detachable Footrests, and Drop Back Handle.) Amazon lists it at $299.99, but discounts it to $99.99. Shipping was $26.73.
It is all the things it says it is and one more: Because it folds, I can easily get it in the car. Plus I like its handbrakes, which sort of remind me of riding what we used to call an English racer. This may not be the model for you, but my mom is about 100 pounds, so she's only about four times as heavy as the chair.

More info on items as they come to my attention, but meanwhile, if you know of anything, please e-mail me at Thank you!

Think life is tough? Try being old

It's not easy getting old, and it's even harder being old. I watch my mother, now 88, as she struggles to recover from a broken hip and the surgery to replace part of it. Watching her is both heartening and heartbreaking—heartening because she still tries to go forward, to regain some of her independence, heartbreaking because she does so at the cost of her dignity.

At first, she had to be assisted because she couldn't do the simplest tasks. Later she had to be assisted because the fall that took her hip out also stole her self-confidence. She's afraid of falling, with some justification. But she should be more afraid of those who think that just because she's old and very hard of hearing, she has no feelings. Poppycock. Of course she does.

So, caregivers of America, please don't talk to her as though she's a baby. Don't talk about having to change her diaper. (Could just call it a pad instead?) And when she does ask for assistance, please respond. She generally doesn't ask for help unless she needs it because she's of that generation that doesn't ask. So don't stand around the nurse's station laughing and talking about last night's par-tay while she's doing her best to keep her bodily functions at bay.

It may not make one whit of difference to you that you're hurting, not helping one old lady, but wait about 60 years and then you'll know that it matters. It matters a lot. Every day. Remember that.