by Lila Lazarus
I’m sitting in my mother’s basement and I’m crying. I’m surrounded on all sides by boxes filled to the brim with photographs and birthday cards, old cameras and record albums, plaques and certificates — remnants of a life well-lived. I’m holding a wedding invitation I just found from 1974. I don’t recognize the names, but there’s also the card with directions just in case my Mom still needs them. I’m completely overwhelmed.
Last month, I finally convinced my mother to move into a senior facility. Living alone in a big house was just too much for her to maintain and, frankly, not safe for her anymore. For years I had begged her to begin the difficult process of donating, selling and disposing of her life’s treasures. But she never did. She just didn’t want to face the idea that she wouldn’t be able to live independently and couldn’t hold on to her things forever. I know this is hard for her. I know she feels like her life is spinning and there’s so much loss, including loss of control.
I never thought of my Mom as a hoarder. Her home was orderly. But now, faced with the task of unloading eight decades worth of possessions, it’s clear to me she was what I now affectionately call a “non-disposer.” A child of the depression, she held on to everything anyone ever gave her. Everything. From theatre playbills, to birthday cards, to the “Hello my name is” name-tags she was given at charity functions. She still has all the baby cards sent to her when my brother was born. He’s now 63. And come to think of it, where the hell is he? I’m alone in this basement and I’m crying. I have three siblings but they all live out of state. So the selling, sorting, organizing, tossing, cleaning and caring for my Mom – it’s all been left to me. And between you and me, I’m not taking it well. I’m trying not to be a packing robot. What seems old and outdated to me were part of my mom’s precious memories, but I want the job done.
I never forced my Mom into having the conversations she didn’t want to have. For example: Who’s going to deal with all the stuff you’ve collected? Tell me about your bank accounts, retirement funds, pension, credit cards, etc. Where’s the key to the safe deposit box? (She lost it a long time ago.) They were tough subjects so we never faced them.
Yes, in the back of my mind I knew there would come a time I’d be caring for my Mom. But no one tipped me off about how suddenly things change and how much work would be involved and how emotional I would become. No one ever warned me how difficult this would be. I know this process is different for everyone — but if you haven’t been through this yet, be warned: It’s not easy. Here are the few things I’m learning after hours and days in my Mom’s basement:
This process is taxing on my body, mind and spirit. I’m frustrated. I’m frazzled. I’m fatigued. I’m trying to figure out which bills have been paid and which are overdue and from what accounts, but my eyelids are heavy. I’m trying to find the silver lining or something to laugh about, but even humor is no substitute for a good night’s sleep. If you’re taking on the role of custodian, bill payer, medical advocate, errand runner, house cleaner and seller, give yourself airplane advice: Put your oxygen mask on first, or you’re of no use to anyone. Too often the caregiver puts all their energy into the care receiver and leaves themselves totally depleted. I did that for the first few weeks and thought I was losing my mind. Sleep deprivation takes you straight to burnout. Take care of you, so you can take care of Mom and her affairs.
Once I got Mom into the right facility, it was clear I was spending way too much time with old photos, dust and garbage bags. Every time I felt like my heart was breaking, I would force myself to head outside and go for a walk. Nature has a way of calming the soul.
Things go downhill fast. Suddenly she’s not finishing sentences or turning off the stove. She struggles with her cell phone and forgets directions to places she’s been to countless times. She insists on holding on to so many of her books or files because she will “need them.” She calls at all hours of the day. She can’t find her license. (That one’s probably a blessing as she shouldn’t be driving anymore — and telling her that hasn’t been easy.) There’s depression and so much frustration on all sides. Just be warned.
Make a Plan
The toughest part is none of this was planned or even talked about. So take my advice: Have those difficult conversations before it’s too late. Where would you like to live? What can we get rid of now? Make a list of all bank accounts and automatic bills and credit cards and insurance information. Do some pre-planning with an attorney and with the rest of the family. Even if they’re out of town, they can make calls, cancel the newspaper that’s still being dropped in the driveway or help with some of the bills.
You Gotta Have Friends
Why was I even trying to do this all alone? Thank goodness for friends who showed up just at the right time. Don’t be afraid to use the three most powerful words in the English language: “I need help.” Staying isolated and playing the victim didn’t help me one iota. You’ll learn who your real friends are. Breeda Miller, “The Caregiver Champion,” who speaks on the overwhelming feelings I’m experiencing, gave me the best advice of all: “Breathe,” she said. “You don’t have to figure everything out at the same time. Take a moment to collect your thoughts, and then think about what resources are available to help you. It’s a new normal and you are traveling an unfamiliar and scary path – there is help available, but you need to reach out. One of the hardest feelings to overcome is the feeling of isolation. Be mindful of this, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
It was just what I needed to hear to get me out of the basement. Mom seems to be doing well in her new surroundings, and I’m still working on getting rid of some last-minute items. There’s a mountain of photographs that need to be digitized and slides that need to be transferred. If I had to do it over again, I would have urged my siblings to get on a plane and help me. They didn’t, so I’m throwing their report cards in the trash.
Lila’s Health Report:
In order to stay healthy, you need to stay active and engaged. In addition to exercise, good nutrition and sleep, you also need a good dose of adventure. So each month I’ll share ways to boost the excitement and passion in your life with adventurous ways to create more wellness in your body, mind and your spirit.