For many months now, I have been watching friends who live in another city, struggle with all the elements that come into play when an aging parent develops dementia. The parent in question is his widowed mother, who lives in my home town, a good six hour drive for where our friends live and work.
Because doctors, banks, notaries and social service agencies are mostly closed on weekends, my friends often had to take time off work to come here on a Friday or Monday so they could move forward with the daunting task of getting his mother into a safe environment, something which requires a written mandate and which my friend's mother had not provided.
Our friends had first begun to notice a change in thought and speech patterns when talking to mum on the phone last year. A subsequent visit to find out why her electricity had suddenly been cut off (the bill had not been paid in many months) showed a tremendous change in her handwriting, her signature in particular. Moreover, the fridge was empty, the house was in total disarray and there were holes in their conversations because mum could no longer remember certain things.
The earliest doctor's appointment they could get was weeks away. In the meantime, bills had to be paid, money had to be transferred, groceries had to be brought in. The people next door were helpful to a point, mowing the lawn and buying milk, but one can hardly ask even a well-meaning neighbour to take on the intimate activities of daily living; showering, nail clipping, changes of underwear, laundry.
While waiting for the doctor to confirm their worst fears, our friends took time off work whenever they could and also drove here weekend after weekend to try and keep things going. They soon discovered that the fridge full of groceries was not a good solution because mum no longer knew what to do with food. Frozen, ready-to-heat meals were ordered instead. The trouble with that system was that mum didn't always want to open the door to the 'strangers' who delivered it. Same for the woman who was hired to clean. She never knew from one week to the next if she would be allowed in to perform her job.
After the initial doctor's appointment it was established that a geriatric assessment would be needed. Another appointment, another long wait. In the meantime, my friends continued to go back and forth between their city and mine, always trying to stay one step ahead of mum's needs. Even before the assessment could be made, it was clear that she was in jeopardy being left alone. Constant worry about falls and fires kept my friends awake on many a night.
It's now a year later and my friend's mother has finally been placed in a facility that has a floor for people with dementia. She is not exactly happy but at least she's out of harm's way and gets three meals a day. She will settle to her new routine soon enough. But for my relieved friends, already emotionally exhausted, the real work had just begun.
Mum's house, now empty, was filled to the rafters with a lifetime worth of stuff. Old furniture with ring marks and faded upholstery fabric. Rooms reeking of cat urine and stale cigarette smoke. Closets crammed with never-worn clothes and drawers filled with items in desperate need of laundering. Linens in tatters. Chipped china, hidden silverware, paper, paper, and more paper, puzzle pieces, cigarette butts, mismatched shoes, old dentures, buttons, old nail files, brooches, faded photographs. Just when they thought one room was more or less 'done' they discovered that the garage was still full and that there was a trunk full of more papers in the basement. A huge task to tackle on weekends after they have dealt with all the issues in their own lives. They did their very best but in the end had to pay someone to cart it all away.
Clearly, a big favour we can do our children is not burden them with our left-overs. You may love that stained tea cosy aunt Maude gave you all those years ago but your son or daughter will likely throw it in the garbage the minute your back is turned. So get real. Leave a legal mandate or a least, written instructions and then shed stuff as you go. How many raincoats does one person need? How many magazines can you read at one time? If a mug has lost its handle, don't use it to hold old leaky pens, throw it out!! If a puzzle is missing a piece, no point in keeping the box with all the other pieces, is there?
Keep what you absolutely need to be happy and comfortable, of course. Give no-longer used treasures to those who will appreciate them and then have a garage sale every year for the stuff we all accummulate in our lifetime. Whatever doesn't sell should be donated or thrown out. Left to rot in an empty house, stuff morphes into costly junk.