A Look At, A Look Back, A Look Ahead

My mother is in an “Assisted Living” facility. In case you didn’t know, that is the new term for nursing homes. Well, they do still have actual facilities that they call nursing homes, but the criteria to be in a nursing home is now closer to the criteria to be in hospice. In assisted living facilities, the level of care is on the upswing, while the degree of independent functioning for the residents is on the downswing. Even among the various assisted living facilities, there are amany of levels of functioning, but, largely speaking, they are places where you go when you need more care than your family feels comfortable providing. My mother is in a memory care assisted living facility which means that all of the residents in her facility have Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.   

For all intents and purposes, my mother is hardly my mother anymore. She now spends most of her days in a wheelchair; even small amounts of walking can be hard for her. She can sometimes not get her left leg to take even the smallest step and her body moves as though she were one of those old-fashioned dolls whose legs bend only at the hip. Her hair, which was always meticulously styled, professionally done each week and held in place by a half of can of hairspray, is now mostly limp and combed out. She herself combs it out because, when she looks in the mirror she doesn’t like how her hair looks, but she also doesn’t realize that combing it out is what makes it look that way. My mother’s clothes, once ironed before she even thought about wearing them, are now clean, but often rumpled looking. Obviously, she doesn’t cook or do any of the things she used to do when she was more independent and living alone. She is like a ghost of the person she used to be.

It’s really hard for me to visit with her. I am not much for small talk and I don’t have stories with which to entertain her and the other nearby residents. My brother, on the other hand, is a one-man stand-up comedian. He is the life of the Assisted Living party. He tells them all stories from when he worked as a postal worker in downtown Trenton. He delivered mail to all of the big law firms and higher-end restaurants and took really good care of the people on his route. As a result, they took good care of him as well, often giving him VIP treatment at their establishments, including him in their social events and so forth. Even now, if we are out with my brother, it is like being out with the mayor. He always knows someone or someone always knows him. He has a million stories to tell and I can’t seem to come up with even one.

When my brother has been there, the staff all tell me how great he is and how entertaining he was during his visit. He must not see what I see or he must be better at operating on top of how disturbing it is. Almost all of the residents are only half awake, some actually dozing off and snoring quite loudly before the Activities Director wakes them up. Some follow along with her with watchful eyes, unable, I guess, to interact but still wanting to be a part of what is happening. The last time I was there, the resident sitting next to me was awake and her middle-aged son sat in the chair next to her sound asleep. When she needed help getting to the ladies’ room, I got an aid for her; no use disturbing the sleeping visitor. 

I was there on Sunday this week and the residents were all gathered in one room, in something of a circle. There was the Activities Director that, on the weekends, doubles as the administrator, aid to residents who have to use the bathroom, assistant to those who need help eating, and anything else just short chief cook and bottle washer. She is very sweet and very young, but she is also very skilled. She leads the residents in singing old-time folk songs and songs that they all know by heart. She wakes them up if they are sleeping, encouraging them to join in the sing-a-long. Sometimes one of the residents is grouchy with her, but she pretends that the grouchy comment is a positive interaction, and just continues on as though the comment was all part of the plan. It’s impressive, a cross between circle-time for the elderly and improv at old-folks-home. 

When I go I am torn between bringing my laptop and getting some work done while my mom naps next to me, or the continuous task of waking her up during an activity in which I am participating more than she is. It depends a little bit on the activity; I like some better than others. I am not that big on the sing-a-longs, although I try to get my mother to participate in them because she was a big sing-a-long person and has a beautiful voice. If they are playing trivia, it is much harder for me  to be quiet because I know all the answers and I want to call them out before the residents. My competitive edge has very little empathy for anyone, the elderly and memory challenged included. If there is BINGO, I am all in because I love BINGO. In the end, however, any way you look at it, it is torture. 

I cannot believe that this is now my mother’s life. It wasn’t that long ago that she was making soup with me in my kitchen. Even long after she was living in an assisted living setting, she could help me cook and fold clothes and could have some conversation. It is all so sad now and I am not sure what to do with the sadness. And there is the sadness that is expected, the loss of memory and mobility and overall functioning, but there are also so many unexpected losses that I cannot reconcile, and those are the ones that most haunt me. For instance, for years we would have my mother to our house on Sunday and I can remember feeling like I myself never had a free weekend. I worked Monday through Saturday and then spent all day Sunday with my mom at my house. The problem was I never really had a day to do something special, or a day to do just nothing at all. I didn’t appreciate then that these Sundays would someday not be at my house where we could cook and talk and do “regular stuff,” but that they would transition to being at a facility where my mother struggles to remember not only how to do the simplest tasks, but to remember who I am and how I am related to her. I also didn’t appreciate how many years my mother was really struggling to be “normal.” If I had, I would have been, I don’t know, softer, less harried, perhaps having done more with her. I don’t know. As you can see, it is a haunting feeling to now be Monday morning quarterbacking all of this.  

Her friend group which consisted of a large number of women who all worshipped together, volunteered together, and did other social things together, are now all absent from her life. I cannot believe that all of her so-called-friends were, in the end, fair weather friends.  Not even one of them comes to visit her. Not. Even. One. And she did so much for so many of them for years and years. She drove so many of them to appointments, or did light shopping for them, or brought them communion, or just sat with them. She was a caretaker for sure. One of the women in the group sends out these emails that list the activities that they can all do each week and they go about their lives, having fun, bowling, volunteering and all of that. I want to weep. Well, I want to scream and THEN I want to weep. I guess they stay busy and they do not take care of each other in the way that my mother used to take care of people. I guess they are a good-time-friend group, meaning that they are there to share the good times and if you happen to run among bad times, that you then become the custody of your family. I asked the emailer about it once and she said, “I wish we were better at visiting when people are sick but we are just not good at that.” I resisted the temptation to say “What the fuck?” because it was a rhetorical question for which I didn’t really want an answer. I thought about pointing out that it would take nothing more than for her to list “visit Annie” on her long list of weekly activities for them to “be better at it,” but I was hesitant to say anything. I think their hearts are two sizes too small. Or maybe, on the subject of my mother’s so-called-friends, MY heart is two sizes too small. I wish them all friends like themselves when they are older and find themselves alone. 

I am most angry at her church. Her church where she was a “pillar in the community” couldn’t care less about her because she has nothing to give to them. I really thought that someone from the church would be there when my mom needed them. My mother was a Eucharistic minister, a member of the Rosary Alter Society, a member of the Prayer Group, the leader of the parish Prayer circle and attended both the reciting of the rosary and mass every day, and sometimes twice a day. She had a key to lock and unlock the church and, if I had a nickel for every time some bullshit, con-artist priest told me that my mother was a “pillar” in the parish community, I could pay next month’s rent. Now I am not sure why I am so surprised that a church that denied and covered up the sexual abuse and exploitation of children for the past century would be somehow different to an elderly member with failing health, but I did think it would be different. A few months ago, my mother was on this kick of asking me why no one from her church came to visit her.  For weeks and weeks, I skirted the issue the best I could and then, finally, when I was out of all the generous comments I could think of, I called the church and asked THEM what I should tell my mother. 

“Hi, this is Donna Ritz, Anne’s daughter. I am looking for guidance.”

“What can I do?” the response from an unsuspecting secretary.

“Well, my mother was a member of the parish for 65 years and she is now in an Assisted Living facility and she keeps asking me why no one from the parish comes to visit her and I am not sure what I should tell her.” 


“Well, you know, the priests are very busy here and they do their best.” 

I take big deep breaths. I think about what I want to say. I go slowly because I don’t want to give them even one negative thing to say, but I am not much of a back-down kind of girl either.

“Oh, of course. I am sure they are. Just tell me what to tell my mom. I think that because she raised her family at the parish, was a Eucharistic minister, brought communion to the sick, served on the Alter Rosary Society, was a member of the prayer group and the person who coordinated the prayer circle, she is confused about why no one from St. Raphael’s has had time for the past three years. I just want to know what you would like me to say. I will tell her anything you want, but I am just not sure what you want me to tell her.” 

“Would you like me to put in a request for a priest to visit?” 

“Why, yes. That would be lovely. Perhaps then the priest could explain to her why no one comes to visit her.”

“I’ll put in a request for Father Gene.”

“Thanks. That’s great. I appreciate it so much.” 

So, sure enough, Father Gene came to visit exactly one time. One time. And, rookie that I am, I was still shocked about it. Man, these Catholics. As much as they are about morality and shame, you cannot even shame them into doing the right thing! After all, they are busy. By the way, I also called another church that my mother frequented and asked them if someone from the church might come out and pray with my mom.

“Of course,” the response from St. Greg’s secretary.

“It doesn’t even have to be an adult,” I hasten to add, feeling desperate and conscious that I am asking for a favor from a church that has an enormous number of parishioners, “maybe there is a student who needs community service hours. My mother will pray with anyone.” 

“Don’t be silly! I am sending clergy! It’s their job to minister to the sick.” 

Crickets. This time on my end because I cannot manage to speak past the tears that are lodged in my throat. 

“Thank you,” I finally get out, “You have no idea what this means to us.”

“It’s why we are here! No problem at all.”