I recently returned from 2 1/2 weeks in the Detroit area, helping my mother and her husband, Peter, move into assisted living. As anyone who has been through such a transition knows, it is not an easy move. In this case, for approximately 6 weeks, it took all four of their adult children, working around the clock, to make this transition happen as smoothly and safely as possible.
My mother, Rachel, is 85 years old, and as I have written about before, her advancing dementia, has pretty much eliminated her short term memory. Fortunately, most of her long term memory is still intact, and she remembers and cherishes all her children, grandchildren, and of course, her doting husband, Peter. In fact, part of my mother’s challenge, is that she gets very nervous when Peter is not around, repeatedly asking, “where is Peter?” and “what is Peter doing?” and “when is Peter coming back?”
While our family has been discussing moving my mother and Peter into assisted living for at least 6 months, COVID restrictions have made that option much less attractive. After all, COVID is killing people in assisted living at a much higher rate than the general population. Moreover, appropriate COVID restrictions are keeping assisted living residents alone and without the normal activities that many of these facilities provide. As a result, until about 6 weeks ago, Peter made very clear that he and my mother would not move into assisted living until they got COVID vaccines, which until recently, made a lot of sense.
Then Peter fell, and he could not get up. My mother’s cognitive abilities have diminished to the point that she was unable to call 911 or one of her children to help. Fortunately, my brother Nathan, happened to call after Peter fell, and even more fortunately, my mother was able to answer the phone and tell him that they needed help. My brother was able to get over to their house quickly, and my mother was able to let him in. Peter was still unable to get up, so my brother called 911. The paramedics were able to get him up and into bed, and after checking him, they determined that he did not need to go to the hospital, which in retrospect, was a mistake, because a few days later, Peter fell again.
After the second fall, it became clear that Peter was sick, and while my brother watched over my mother, who simply cannot be left alone safely, my sister took Peter to the hospital. Due to COVID restrictions, she could not stay with him. After determining that Peter did not have COVID, a variety of tests and scans revealed that Peter had a gall bladder infection, which is very serious and ultimately he ruptured his gall bladder. He was put on IV antibiotics, and then sent home on oral antibiotics.
My brother stayed with my mother while Peter was in the hospital, and he reports that it was a very challenging experience as my mother was completely distraught without her soulmate. While they were all glad when Peter returned home, he was still weak and sick, so my brother ultimately spent 2 1/2 weeks living with them to keep them safe.
By the end of the year, it became clear that my brother could not handle this situation alone, so we asked Peter’s daughter Carolyn to fly in from Denver, which she did. At this point, it also become clear that Peter and my mother needed 24/7 care, and that their home was no longer safe for them. While COVID risks and restrictions remained in place at the assisted living facility, the reality was that if they stayed in their home, something else would have killed them before COVID.
About 10 days after Carolyn arrived, my brother needed to return to his normal life, so I drove in to help with the transition to assisted living. Carolyn (whom I grew very close to and now consider my sister) and I made a great team. We went through their things, determined what needed to move to their new apartment within the assisted living facility, bought them a new bed and other necessities, contracted with a moving company, all the while keeping our parents safe and well fed.
We also hired 4 caregivers to take care of our parents, as we could not stay with them for the rest of their lives. The first two, Takina (Kina) and Kendrea (Kay), eased the transition by starting to work during the day at their old home. We then brought the other two, Kellie and Crystal, in to help once they moved into their new apartment.
Carolyn and I made lists, checked them off, and made more lists. It was pretty much non-stop and we got very little sleep. We were generally exhausted. But we had a common goal-to keep our parents safe and move them into their final chapter of their life.
Although Peter consented to the move, he also made clear that he would not move until Donald Trump moved out of the White House. So, we arranged for our parents to move on January 20th. They moved in when Trump moved out.
The day before our parents moved, I took them to Fox Run (a continuum of care retirement community), for an orientation with the social worker. My mother was very scared. Despite the fact that Peter and I were there, her agitation grew. She kept asking, “Will Peter move with me?” No matter how many times he assured her that he would never leave her, she just kept asking again and again.
We visited their new apartment, but it was empty. She said she did not like it and did not want to move in there. She claimed she had never seen it or approved moving there and questioned why we were forcing her to move there, even though she had forgotten that she had been there a few weeks earlier and completely approved moving in there.
Finally, I had to take them to the medical center to get COVID tested in a 3rd building, each move requiring getting them and their walkers into and out of my car. Fortunately, they both tested negative, but we were all exhausted by the time we got back to their place.
My mother’s agitation grew again when we went back to her old home for one more night’s sleep there, as it was now all packed up in preparation for the next day’s move. Her agitation grew so much that we called her doctor who ordered a 5 day dose of medicine to help keep her calm during this difficult transition.
On moving day, we had to get up early as I planned on taking our parents to my brother’s home so they would not have to watch all their stuff being moved, which would have increased my mother’s agitation greatly. During the 20 minute drive to my brother’s house, my mother must have asked 20 times, “Where are we going?” and after each time we told her, she asked “Why are we going to Nathan’s house?”
The medicine the doctor prescribed for my mother helped her sleep through much of the long 10+ hour wait at my brother’s house. It was also helpful that we had the nice distraction of watching the inauguration. But during the periods my mother woke up, her agitation ramped up again, with incessant questions indicating her confusion.
Meanwhile, Carolyn and my brother-in-law, were busy hanging pictures and arranging their furniture, so that (we hoped) when I took them to their new home, they would (we prayed) feel comfortable there. As my mother’s agitation increased, I kept texting Carolyn for an update as to when I could bring them to Fox Run. Finally, around 6 PM, she said they were ready for us to arrive around 6:30, so we bundled them up for the cold and got them and their walkers into my car. My mother’s questions continued throughout the entire drive, making me nervous that her agitation might only worsen if she did not like what she saw when she entered her new home.
For as long as I live, I will never forget the few moments after we opened the door to their new home. My eyes are actually welling up with tears as I write this. Carolyn and my brother-in-law, did such a great job hanging their art and family photographs, that my mother just exclaimed moments after we entered, that this was her art, and these were photos of her family. We were all sobbing tears of joy as we walked them around their new home.
Unfortunately, we had trouble with the new bed delivery, so our parents spent the first night in the guest room in their old bed, and we brought over an air mattress for Kay to sleep on. For the next week, Carolyn and I continued making more lists and crossing our tasks off: doctors appointments, occupational and physical therapy, bringing things from their old home (which thankfully we did not need to sell right away and pack up) that they still needed, and the list went on and on.
After a few days, I realized that we had not removed their mezuzzot, which Jews hang on their doorposts as commanded in the Torah, and brought them to their new home. I asked Peter if he would like me to remove their old mezuzzot from their old home and hang them in their new home, and he agreed that was not only desirous, but necessary.
When I brought the mezuzzot over to their new apartment, I asked Peter where he wanted me to hang them, and he said I should ask my mother. Fortunately, my mother’s artistic sensibility remains intact, and she had a very clear sense of which mezuzah should hang on which door post, and exactly how high and on what slant.
From his chair, Peter said, “Now it feels like my home-a Jewish home.” I told him that they now had Shalom Bayit שְׁלוֹם בַּיִת-a peaceful home. He nodded his head in agreement.
Of course, the mezuzzot alone could not alleviate my mother’s agitation. But something else helped a lot. When Takina was in our parents’ old home, she noticed the many works of art which my mother had created when she was younger. She suggested that Carolyn and I buy her some adult coloring books and colored pencils, which we did.
For the first few days they lived at Fox Run, I occasionally asked my mother if she wanted to color and she declined. But then one day, Carolyn simply put the coloring book and pencils in front of my mother, and my mother just smiled and started coloring. Fortunately, despite a stroke, her fine motor coordination in her hands is still good and she was able to color beautifully. Even more important was that she surprised herself at her beautiful creation. As Peter poignantly put it, “No amount of money can buy self-esteem.”
That picture was the first in her coloring book and could not have been more appropriate for their move.
Carolyn returned home on January 26th and I agree to stay until the 28th, as that is when Fox Run residents were getting their first COVID vaccine and I wanted to make sure our parents received this life saving vaccine.
It is a good thing that I was there to help them navigate getting their vaccines as the process was challenging. I woke up at 5 AM to clean out anything from their old kitchen that might grow, or had already grown, in order to arrive at their new apartment by 8:15, since they had been informed that they would receive a knock on their door to go get their vaccine sometime between 8:30-11 AM.
Initially, my mother moved on to another page in her coloring book, but as the time wore on, she became more agitated, continually asking us: what we were waiting for, when would they go, would Peter come with her? Finally, as the clock struck 11:01, I made a few calls, only to find out that the task of vaccinating 1,000 elderly residents was perhaps not surprisingly, taking longer than expected. However, I had a 7 hour drive ahead of me, and my mother’s agitation was only increasing, so I pressed them as to how much longer our parents would have to wait. Finally, a kind woman agreed that there was no reason to increase my mother’s agitation so she said we should just come over now.
The vaccination clinic was taking place in a building that was too far for them to walk, so we dressed them, masked them, and got them into a shuttle bus, while I drove over to that building to meet them, where of course, we waited some more. Fortunately, one nice distraction was that where we were sitting and waiting, these photos were a pleasant surprise.
When they were finally called to get in line for their vaccines, it was about 12:15. Initially, they were directed to two seats far from each other, but I told them they had to be together, so we found two open seats where they could see each other. I stayed with my mother and the vaccinator said to my mother that she grew up going to Shaarey Zedek and she remembered Rabbi Adler, who had been a revered rabbi who was murdered on the pulpit in 1966. As it turns out, my mother grew up in and still belongs to Shaarey Zedek and also remembered Rabbi Adler. I grew up there too and that is where I had my Bar Mitzvah. When I asked her what caused her to ask this question, she said that she saw my mother Star of David necklace, and assumed it was safe to ask, and might make her more comfortable, which indeed it did.
Per normal COVID vaccine protocol, those who received vaccinations needed to wait another half an hour to make sure they felt ok, and once that time passed, I bundled our parents back up and took them back to their apartment, where Takina had lunch waiting for them.
Peter told me that staying until I was sure they got their COVID vaccines was a “quadruple mitzvah (good deed).” He knows what I know-COVID would kill our parents so the vaccines are a life saver.
I went to Detroit with the goal of moving our parents to a place where they would be safe. With the help of my siblings and the wonderful caregivers we hired, I achieved my goal, and I could say good-bye, knowing that they would be safe until I return. I am well aware that our parents are fortunate to have a loving family to care for them and sufficient funds to afford a move such as they just went through. It is my greatest hope that one day, no one will be left behind as they age, so we can all live our last years in comfort and dignity.
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.