By Rosalie Tirella
Who knew that my mom would become such a project in her old age? Who knew that when her dementia began 4 and 1/2 years ago it would take a near genius/faker/pit-bull of a daughter (me) to keep her (a little 85-year-old Polish lady with sad, tired eyes) in her little studio apartment at Illyrian gardens? A place where for 16 years she lived in cozy bliss with her cat and cable TV tuned 24/7 to Red Sox games and the Catholic Mass channel? A place she loved and then grew afraid of not so much because of the onset of her dementia but because of the firing of the super Illyrian Gardens staff and a behind the scenes coup that left her and the 60 or so other seniors at this high rise complex with a new (insensitive!) IG executive director, social services coordinator and janitor.
So … out with the cool, fun events that the old I.G. staff provided: the annual summer cookouts (the new staff even ripped out the lovely big grill and benches in the grassy area out back – home to many a cook out under the old IC regime), monthly breakfast buffets, visits from the heriff’s office and their amazing German Shepherd Dogs, Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners (catered by a great local restaurant), parties, visits from local dulcet-toned pols, a caring social serivce coordinator, weekly movie nights with popcorn, exercise days, yoga days, a wheel chair in each activty room for folks who were coming back from brief stays in hospitals … .ths list went on. Now, gone.
Also, (the biggest disappointment for my mom) pets were banned – even cats and teeny chihuahuas. Not one snuggly animal allowed in Illyrain Gardens anyore – for residents or their visitors – even my fab Husky mix Jett. My mom – at 84 – was threatened with eviction by Executive Director Mark Doku if I brought Jett up to her room to visit. She grew pale when I showed her the two-inch thick envelope filled with legal briefs/forms from IG’s lawyers. She grew afraid of Mark Doku and what he would do next to her and her the people and animals she loved.
I got it. After all, who takes a crippled old lady to Worcester Housing Court after she’s lived in a place for almost two decades and is clearly growing more frail by the month? Who kicks the walker out from a senior hobbling to her TV set to take a closer look at a Red Sox instant replay?
Assholes, that’s who.
Once, I brought my mom back to Illyrian Gardens from a brief stay at the hospital (she had fallen). When I entered his office to ask him about the wheel chair (none), Doku said, his face grim, “Well, if she’s back, she’s back.”
Later I asked him: Why are you here, you don’t even seem to like old people? You are supposed to be a man of God (he was a deacon in the church that owned Illyrian Gardens – St. Mary’s Albanian Orthodox Church on Salisbury Street).
He replied: What does that have to do with my running Illyrain Gardens?
This past year, I began to put a bug in her ear: “Ma, you’re really not happy in this place anymore. Things have changed. Mark’s an asshole. They’re all jerks. You may like living in a nice facility.”
I didn’t use the words “nursing home,” and my mom was kinda fuzzy on what “facility” meant. In this way, we were able to talk about her future without really getting too specific.
She always replied: This is my home.
I told myself, Illyrian Gardens was no longer “home” – it was making my mom sicker – more isolated than if the old IG crew, headed by Peter Harrotian, still ran the complex. Peter would still have alll the fun stuff going and Sandie, the services corrdinator, would be running to my mom’s room encouraging her to atttend events – or bringing her treats and meals from celebrations that my mom wasn’t up to attending. (She had already been doing this for Mum a year or so before the changes.)
“Ma,” I would say to my mother, “you don’t go out in the hall to walk around or visit Nickie (her pal). You seem lonely.”
I was thinking: Mom’s dementia may “slow down” if she is placed in a good nursing home run by and filled with caring people/professionals.
So when she took a header a month or so ago as she leaned against one of her chairs, things took a different turn than from the four previous times she took a tumble. She didn’t go to Memorial Hospital, a rehab hospital and then back home. The ambulance took her to Memorial Hospital, a rehab hospital and then (a few weeks later) an ambulance/van took her to another (sub-acute) rehab hospital with a nursing home unit attached.
So here I am, with prodding from the state of Massachusetts, which cut her Meals on Wheels, homemaker and personal care attendant services to force Mom out of her apartment into a “long-term care facility” – for her own good – puttng her in a home. Elder Services always knew I brought mom to her little apartment and they provided support services, but with a new nurse on board, she decided to cancel mom’s services – so she would be forced to go into a facility – and her recommendation would match the rehab doctors. It had never matched before. This Elder Services nurse was just being a good bureaucrat – keeping her job by rubber stamping what Fairlawn’s rehab doctors had recommended. Nothing more. Nothing less.
So here I am … breaking up the last apartment my mother will have “run.” It’s hearbreaking taking apart my mom’s personal touches, routine, memorabilia – her digs, the last place in which she made her bed (too frail/confused to do so now), made her fab homemade chicken soup (I can still see her filling the big pot with water at the sink and with a big heave-ho, lugging it to the stove), jotted down shopping lists (her handwriting not very cursive (more right angles than girly curves), folded her laundry (two loads every week, always washed in her trusty TIDE), coached and counseled her three daughters over the phone, payed her bills (sitting at the kitchen table looking grim), gossiped with her favorite sister (dead 7 years – still missed).
What to save? What to discard? What to give away?
All the rosaries she collected over the years. Pretty ones given to her for Christmas by family. Pink plastic ones in chinsy vinyl cases with “MY ROSARY” printed on the flap – in “gold.” I take the chinsy pink plastic rosary and send the others to my sister because I know that my mom got the pink one as a thank-you gift from one of the many religious missionary folks she would send $5 or $10 to – sometimes every month. To support their work with poor or homeless kids. In the old days she would sit down and read with keen interest the letters she got from the nuns or priests who ran the places – often in New York City or some developing country. She would proudly show the notes to me – all copies, not originals. Still they mattered to her.
Should I pitch the tags? The dog tags from all my – our – pooches. Grace, Bailey, now Jett? My mom has known and loved them all. She was/is a people and PET person! When she was in her 20s and living with her sisters in Springfield they had two huge Doberman Pinschers – and fed many stray cats. I love the old sepia toned photos of my lovely mother from those World War II days, with dark hair long and sometimes adorned with an orchid artistically placed in her hair right above her ear (a la Billie Holiday). There she is, sitting in the grass, in front of the home they lived in, a big, elegant Dobbie, “Rocky” lying by her side, his long paw resting in her lap. And she is holding his paw.
All the cups, some cracked. should I dump them? The coffee mugs for my mom – a caffeine addict, if ever there was one. She drank coffee 24/7 for about 65 years. First as a working girl, then as a harried single-working mom, then as a TV watching retiree, cat in lap, Red Sox coffee mug on the end table by her easy chair. When she was in her 70s, it was not unusual to get a call from Mom around 11 p.m., her voice cracked and strained: Rosalie, my coffee maker died. get me another one tomorrow. Tomorrow.
And so I did, thank you Building 19, Grafton Street. I had to – Ma would go through withdrawal without her java. Finally, it got so bad, with the late night callls (she ran those machines like a greasy spoon would), I bought “back up.” Extra coffee makers, so that when one Mister Coffee gave out, Mom just had to reach behind it for the brandy new one I had bought and unpacked for her months ago. When she became more frail, began losing the self I loved so dearly, she couldn’t handle the coffee filters and the size of her coffee maker. So I got her three or so mini coffemakers – little carafes attached to little drip devices that didn’t need coffee filters. And she could make herself one cup of coffee. That was all the water the glass carafe would hold. The coffee wasn’t as good as when she made it with a full-size coffee maker but, hell, it wasn’t instant! Which of course, is where our story ends. These past few years, I ended up buying and making for her (along with all her help/nursing aides) INSTANT COFFEEE – anethema to Mom in the 1960s, 70, 80, 90 and 21’st century. There the plastic jar sits – on her wisp of a kitchen counter in front of the mini-coffee maker I retired three years ago. Maxwell House Instant Coffee – with its easy-to-grip foam-rubber lid. Did I dump it? Nope. I took the jar – and just to make sure I wouldn’t misplace it, stuck it in my pocketbook.
The last jar of mama’s java. Not to be drunk, just to be placed in my fridge.