Becoming an Orphan Later in Life

Those who do not become orphans early in life, like Harry Potter, become orphans later in life, unless of course they predecease their parents. For my brothers and me, this happened in fast-forward mode. Our parents died within six months of one another.

As they moved from their home in New Hampshire to a rental unit where we took care of them, to nursing homes suited to their respective needs, there was a mountain of paperwork from their health insurance, their long-term care insurance, Medicare, caregiver organizations, medical providers, etc. etc. which my brother Shady took care of.

He was talking about writing a book about it, and I think he should. I think it would come in handy for a lot of families who are going to be facing the same issues.

My job was easy by comparison: trying to keep my mom happy, and I learned a lot from that, too. Maybe even enough to write a book: Tips on Dealing with Dementia. My mom and I had a lot of great times together after she lost her mind. I think we both laughed harder than we had ever laughed before.

My friend Joe came over for dinner one time and she told me, “This is the nicest party I’ve ever been to in my life.” It was great to know we could still make her happy.

We don’t know if my mom had Alzheimer’s; we didn’t have an autopsy. The rapidity of her memory loss may suggest other causes. Still I believe that what I observed has wider applications for dementia in general.

For example, my mom was an English professor and long after she had forgotten who William Shakespeare was, I put up a note saying “Liberry Hours,” and she pointed out that library was spelled wrong. She had forgotten who William Shakespeare was, but she could still remember how to spell library. Interesting.

Another observation: If I told my mom something on Sunday, there was not a chance in hell she would remember it on Monday. Yet one Sunday she said one too many times how she wanted to kill the preacher, and I told her that if she felt that way I wasn’t going to take her to church anymore.

The next day she asked me, “Can I talk to you?” She clearly remembered our talk on Sunday and the emotional memory was  far more powerful than anything relating to the intellect.  I think that’s interesting, too. Emotional memory is much, much stronger than intellectual memory.

Of course I was sorry for making her feel bad, and I made sure we always parted on happy terms after that. It seems a small thing, but it it isn’t.

A lot of elderly patients, like my mom and my mom’s mom, really don’t like being addressed by their given name by strangers. It’s too familiar and it demeans them in a situation where they’re already uncomfortable. I told her helpers to call her Mrs. Hartshorne and then say, “May I call you Sally?”

She loved that. It meant they were paying deference to her world, which is all she had left, even though it was crumbling around her.

I’m thinking that a collection of small things like this might help others in the same situation, and what we found, my mom and I, might be a surprise to a lot of people and might inspire happiness instead of despair.

Because what we found was that even if you’re losing your mind, you can still make new friends and have a good laugh.