Detroit Free Press
(TNS) – It was a warm day this summer when Mom and I sat on the veranda of the nursing home for a rare in-person visit. We were both masked-up and a good six or more feet apart.
The young aide was momentarily distracted by another resident there.
That’s when Mom stood up, walked over and took my hand in hers. Dementia be damned, COVID-19 be damned. She was my mother and she was going to hold my hand, damnit.
I held her hand back only for a second, then I said something like, “We’re not supposed to touch mom, remember the virus I told you about?”
The aide sprang into action and gently guided Mom away.
That was five or six months ago, yet I can still feel her soft, tissue paper-like 91-year-old skin against mine as if it were yesterday.
That has been the only time we’ve touched in all these months. In the meantime, my birthday has passed, her birthday has passed, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving both passed and now Christmas. And, we do not hug or hold hands. We are not even in the same room.
It’s not normal, but these are not normal times. Still, she and I, and so many others in our situation, hold on to the hope for a hug one day soon as we listen to father time ticking in the background.
Early in the pandemic, Star Manor of Northville, Michigan, the nursing home Mom lives in, went on a self-imposed lockdown, well before the state mandated it, likely saving lives in the process.
But on March 29, I asked the nurse for a favor: To visit my mom while she stood inside and I outside — a glass door between us — as we spoke over cell phones.
The staff soon adopted that practice for all its residents by appointment only. My appointment was typically on a Sunday afternoon.
It is a temporary adaptation to the visiting policy, but dementia blocks mom from fully understanding this odd arrangement.
Every time I walk up to that glass door for a visit and Mom sees me, she pushes on the door to try to open it and invite me inside. I have to explain to her why it is locked and I can’t come in. She will understand, then forget a few minutes later.
Week in and week out, at each visit, I am astutely aware of the harsh reality that her age and dementia present: We have a limited amount of time left to be together on this earth and I don’t want that brief touch this summer to be the last. Neither does she.
“Hopefully, we can see each other in person soon Mom,” I told her on a recent visit.
“Oh that would be a dream come true,” she said, blowing me a kiss.
I don’t blame anyone that I can’t hug my mom or bring her to my house for a home cooked meal.
Nope, not even the deadly culprit itself: COVID-19. For this is a disruptive and awful pandemic that has stolen so much from so many, far more than it has taken from me.
I am happy to wear my face mask and socially distance. This is no hoax or a case of the flu blown out of proportion. Oh no, this virus is real and it can kill.
So I am grateful that both Mom and I are alive and healthy, as are the other residents at Star Manor. That’s a feat in and of itself given that this pandemic has ravaged through more than a thousand nursing homes across the state, attacking and killing the vulnerable inside.
Star Manor’s strict lockdown and protocols have remarkably protected the residents and staff from contracting even one case of COVID. The staff provides weekly updates to residents’ family. Medical staff tests residents and employees regularly.
According to Michigan.gov, as of Monday, there were 20,636 cases of COVID-19 among long-term care facility residents. The data show that 4,650 of those residents have died from the disease; that’s about a third of the state’s total 12,089 coronavirus-related deaths.
There is some respite for the elderly with the newly issued COVID vaccines, one of which has an observed efficacy of 94% in adults over age 65.
The first to get vaccinated are the frontline hospital workers and medical professionals. But the state intends for staff and elderly residents of long-term care facilities to be next in line. It won’t get to me, however, until the summer or fall of next year.
When Mom’s turn arrives, as her power of attorney, I will likely be asked to sign permission to give her the vaccine. I don’t take that lightly, I know there could be side effects. But I have always trusted science and so has Mom.
I will discuss it with her on a day when she is alert to understand it and articulate her wishes. But I am confident she will want it if it offers even the slightest chance that she’d get to see me in person again.
Until then, we talk about the holidays and how we are not able to be together, as I repress the fear this might be the last year of her life.
On the Sunday before Christmas, I sat on that veranda again, for the 30th time since March 29. I had my cell phone in one hand, my other gloved-hand is in my pocket for warmth in the 40-degree temperature.
Inside, Mom sat in a chair facing me. She looked lovely. Though her dementia has progressed in the last eight months, her creamy skin remains flawless and her flowing hair is the longest I have seen in it my life. But that’s what happens when the home’s hair stylist is AWOL during the pandemic.
Mom wore a snazzy, black silk blouse with a white and gold flower pattern, black slacks, clip-on gold-colored hoop earnings, a costume gold ring, a beaded necklace and her trademark red lipstick. She always took pride in her appearance.
She was mentally alert that day too, thankfully. There are days when she has a dazed look and I know it’s going to be a rough visit fraught with confusion for her. She knows who I am, but she gets the facts about my life wrong on those days as dementia erases memories and muddies thoughts.
They call dementia the long goodbye. It is cruel and it taunts. One moment Mom will articulate a brilliant thought in such a way that I startle, thinking: She’s back. That’s her!
Moments later, she’s gone again as she struggles to find the word to express what she wants to say. She will give up in frustration saying, “My brain just isn’t working right anymore,” and then hang her head down in silence.
Or she will say, “It must be hard for you to talk to me. I’m not making any sense, am I?”
That’s the worst part, she knows she is losing her mind. So I lie and say she’s doing fine.
On that Sunday visit, as we said our goodbyes, I reassured her that I would visit her on Christmas day. Then, I promised her that we’d be together in person soon.
I hope I didn’t lie.
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