Monday, July 18, 2011

"C'mon, Mom, unlock the door!"

Mom and me.  She passed away in 2002.

"C'mon, Mom, unlock the door!"  I pleaded as I rang the door bell.  Nothing...  I knocked loudly, then rattled the door knob.  Still nothing.  I knew she was at home.  I had noticed her peeking through the window as I walked over from my house which was next door to hers.  She had a perfect view from her small bathroom window and often kept track of my comings and goings from that little perch of hers.  "What in the world did I do?" I asked myself out loud.  I was only coming to do some housecleaning.  I had tried to call her before leaving my house, but she refused to answer the phone.  I knew I was in trouble somehow.  I wasn't sure where my dad was at this juncture--probably taking his afternoon nap.

An inveterate caregiver in overdrive, I tended to wholeheartedly jump in there and get things done, a bit like the Energizer Bunny.  I had purposely hired someone to clean my own house so I would have the time to clean my mom's.  There was no way my parents would allow anyone else to come into their home and do the job, especially if it cost money.  And their house was no easy task.  They never wanted to throw anything away.  There were knick knacks and mementos scattered all over, everything from 1920's salt and pepper shakers to a rock collection that came from the California Mojave Desert, all collecting dust.

Occasionally I tried to discard an item I thought no longer had sentimental or monetary value.  Big mistake!  My parents would fetch it out of the trash and place it right back where it "belonged."  These were usually things that were broken or had long since lost their identity.  My mom often wandered wistfully from room to room looking at her things.  She was unable to do much else in her late 80's.  Her memory was fading rapidly, but now and again, as she handled some of her little treasures, she would have happy flashbacks of days gone by.  So most things I left undisturbed, except to dust.

Mom at home with beloved great grandchildren
I always felt pleased with myself after I had done the housecleaning, assuming I was being such a big help to my mom.  So the day she locked me out, I was in for a big revelation.  Once I persuaded her to open the door, I followed her to her favorite rocking chair in the sun room of their house.  This was where my parents spent most of their time.  The huge windows provided a view of woods and wildlife and neighbors.  They especially enjoyed watching one neighbor who always wore a huge straw hat in the mid-day sun as he mowed his acreage on his rider mower.  For some reason this was major entertainment for them.  Not sure why....

When I asked her why she was mad at me, my mom said, "You insult me by coming over here and cleaning my house all the time.  My house is not dirty!"  Hello!  This was news to me.  Though her memory would come and go and she had serious health issues, this clearly did not prevent Mom from feeling embarrassed because she could no longer do her job.  My eager-beaver demeanor drove her nuts.  Of course her house did need attention, but it was her house. She had always been the housekeeper until she became frail.  There are other ways I could have approached the jobs at hand and been more respectful of her territory, rather than blow in like a tornado, vacuuming and dusting and washing and cleaning.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Gospel story about sisters Mary and Martha.  In one instance, Martha ran around frantically trying to prepare a meal for Jesus and be a super-hostess. She was quite upset with her sister, Mary, who instead of helping her, sat attentively at Jesus' feet listening to his words of life.  Jesus told Martha she was overly involved in the preparations and had the wrong focus.  Though the lesson in that particular story carries a much deeper spiritual meaning, Martha's well-intended, but misguided zeal described me perfectly.  I rushed about focusing on getting things done, overlooking the age-related emotional needs of my mom.

The moral of the story?  Tread lightly when you find yourself with an opportunity to help an aging senior, particularly if you are on their territory.  I thought Mom would be relieved and overjoyed to have someone take over and do all the work.  But I had forgotten it was her house.  Keeping it up had been an integral part of her identity and no longer being able to do so meant her life, as she once knew it, was slipping away.  Being unaware of this dynamic makes it easy for a caregiver to step on toes or come across as dismissive or insulting, and this can cause an elderly person to feel expendable, old and in the way.

The tasks can still be accomplished by using tact and diplomacy, easing into situations rather than showing up, mop and broom in hand, and vigorously invading their territory.

Oh, and just so you know...Mom never locked me out again.

The sunset of life can be beautiful.....

For more on story of Mary and Martha, see post "This Sister of Mine"
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

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