Connecting with Memories

During the past few weeks, I made a difficult, but important, decision. My 85 year old mother, Rachel, lives in Detroit, and her dementia is advancing to the stage that I am concerned that if I wait to visit her until the COVID pandemic is over, she may not remember who I am. So, my wife, son and I made plans to visit her. With COVID raging in the upper Midwest, my wife, Sheryl, who is at high risk for COVID, decided not to join us, and I decided to get COVID tested before I left, because although I wanted to see mother, I certainly did not want to give her COVID.

I had been tested 4 times previously at the free, no questions asked site in Madison, run by the National Guard with the Dane County/Madison Public Health Department. Typically, I have only waited 10-15 minutes, but with COVID raging, I had to wait nearly 3 hours. This photo is only a small portion of the cars waiting for tests.

Of course, due to the crowds, the test results took longer than usual, and my son and I left for Detroit without receiving the test results, fully prepared to return if I tested positive. Fortunately, the negative results arrived just before we arrived in Detroit.

My mother’s dementia is at the stage where she has little, if any, short term memory. Fortunately, her long term memory is still fairly good. My son, Josh, is very interested in family history, so when we arrived at her home, I suggested that we pull out her family photo albums/scrap books, and review them together. She liked that idea, and I went into the basement to find them. What I had not realized is that there are over 30 volumes. So, I simply pulled out volume one.

While I have looked at my mother’s photo albums and scrap books previously, it had been a very long time, and my son had never seen them before. My mother was a saver, so included in the scrap book were some precious gems including the locks of hair from each of her children’s first haircuts!

As we reviewed each page, Josh asked my mother questions, which she often was able to answer, to my pleasant surprise. Occasionally, when she could not remember, I was able to fill in the blanks. Other memories are simply gone forever.

While we enjoyed reviewing our family history, my mother’s complete loss of short term memory became very apparent. Her husband, Peter, took the opportunity of our visit, to go out to pick up a prescription while we were there. Although he was gone for less than an hour, my mother asked my son and I repeatedly, “Where is Peter?” We simply kept telling her, understanding that she could not remember what we just told her. Her love for Peter and her reliance upon him was very apparent as her concern for his absence floated over our visit until he returned.

Some of the photos we found are genuine treasures including this one of me, perhaps foreshadowing my legal career!

Here is another treasure of my mother with me and my two brothers, the youngest of whom died in 1966 from complications from his pertussis vaccine.

My mother sleeps a lot these days, and after reviewing volume one, it was clear that she was tired, so we said good-bye and promised to return the next day to review volume two, which we did. At that point, I realized that I had never taken my son to the cemetery where my brother is buried, and it seemed especially appropriate to do that on this trip, given that we had just seen many photos of my brother, and that Josh’s middle name is Douglas, after my brother.

My mother named both of my brothers after dearly departed loved ones shortly after they had died. In Douglas’ case, he was born shortly after my Uncle Henry died. In both cases, my mother’s grief prevented her from calling my brothers by their first names, so they have always been called by their middle names.

As you can see, Josh and I placed stones on my brother’s gravestone, as Jewish tradition encourages visitors to gravesites to do to demonstrate that they indeed have visited and remembered their loved ones, because memories of our loved ones, are indeed, a blessing.

Over the past few months, we have retained a wonderful geriatric social worker, Diane Boufford, from Jewish Family Services, to help my mother and Peter navigate these difficult times. Were it not for COVID, I would have gotten together with her during our visit. But to be safe, I simply updated her about our visit by e-mail. During our exchange, I informed her that I took this risk to see my mother due to my fear that she would not remember me if I waited to see her until after the pandemic ended. She supported my visit and responded beautifully by telling me that,

There is a book written by John Zeisel, PhD. He believes that there is a part of the person in there that you can always reach. I tend to agree. Dementia does not always result in not recognizing your loved ones at the end. In fact, most times it seems people remember those they love. They may get confused, call you by another name, but overall they remember you. 

Her response gives me great solace as I peer into a future when my mother may not remember or recognize me at all, but deep down, I know we will always love each other.

Knowing that COVID remains a real risk, before returning back to my wife, Josh and I got COVID tested again, and once again, we thankfully tested negative. As we all struggle to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic, occasionally we make difficult choices to preserve memories and care for our loved ones. It may be awhile before I return to Detroit to see my mother, but the fond memories from this recent visit will last a lifetime.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me,  Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Categories COVID-19, dementia, Family, Jewish tradition, memoryTags , , , ,

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