I have been looking at my pile of orphan earrings, earrings without partners, wondering why I keep them. It’s true that a lost earring does sometimes show up, but many have been mateless for years. Why do I keep even those single earrings?
Orphan earrings seem different from mateless socks and gloves. The reason to keep the latter seems more pragmatic, and parting with singles, less emotional. I feel… guilty about my single earrings, as if, in losing their partner, I’ve let them down.
As a Senior Move Manager, I am a professional downsizer, so my reluctance to part with something as useless as single earrings is especially troubling. Here I am, asking clients to part with half their belongings, when I hold on to useless earrings!
The problem is, I rationalize. I tell myself myths. The first myth is that the other earring will turn up, and while this occasionally happens, is that a good reason to hold on to all of them?
The second myth is that I will make jewelry out of the single earring. It could become a pendant, part of a pin or a charm for a bracelet. That won’t happen. Most of the earrings I wear these days are from Chicos — hardly the cornerstone of a piece of jewelry.
The third myth is that that matching earrings is not necessary — I can wear two different earrings. It will make me more interesting and au courant. This too is unlikely to happen.
The fourth myth is my favorite. Perhaps I will get a second piercing in one ear, and wear the orphan earring in the second hole! Will that ever happen? It’s not planned at present, but 9 years ago, I did go to a hair salon located next to a tattoo parlor, and came home with a small tattoo. I think there was something in the shampoo that made me do it. I do need another haircut… so who knows!
What about you? What do you do with your orphan earrings?
In sailing, the technique used to move against the wind is called tacking. In common use, tacking is the concept of making progress by zigzagging rather than moving forward directly. For adult children helping their parents transition from one home to another, tacking can be a useful concept.
I met recently with a client in her early eighties. She suffered a stroke, and a few months later, lost her husband. They had planned to move to a nearby retirement community, and my client decided to continue with that plan. As she recuperated from the stroke and dealt with her husband’s loss, planning her new home — a large two-bedroom villa separate from the main building — gave her great pleasure. She worked with a decorator and implemented changes that made the villa “her own”. Both financially and emotionally, she was invested.
For months after her stroke, she was not permitted to drive. Shortly before her planned move, she was evaluated to see if she could resume driving and was crushed when she did not pass. Without driving, her children argued, moving to a detached villa was a mistake. She would be cut off from activities and opportunities for socializing. It was likely she would need to move to an apartment in the main building within a few years. Wouldn’t it be better, they maintained, to move just once?
I saw the issue differently. In less than a year, my client had lost her health, her husband, her ability to drive, and her home of forty years. The villa was something to move toward, something in which she had invested time, energy and passion. Now her children were suggesting that she lose that as well. How much can a person lose?
I hoped her children would support her decision, and fortunately, they did. If and when she moves an apartment, the difficult transition from the family home will already have been made. She will change spaces, but will be staying within a community she already calls “home.”
Somtimes getting parents to agree to move requires supporting a decision that may not be optimal, but it is the decision they are willing to make. Faced with formidable obstacles, going sideways is sometimes the most straightforward path.
I was sitting in the lobby of an assisted living residence when a resident met his son at the door, hugged him, and asked, “Where’s Mother?”
“Mom’s dead, Dad,” said the son. “She died three days ago. Don’t you remember?”
“What, mother died?” he said, grief and panic written on his face.
Less than a minute later, he asked again. “Where’s Mother?”
“Dad, she’s dead. You sat next to me at the funeral. Don’t you remember?” This time from the daughter-in-law.
“What, she’s dead?” Again, his face was a mask of grief.
I wanted to stop the son and say, “No, he doesn’t remember, and your reminding him is making him face the news of her death again and again. Can’t you see that?””
Of course, it is easy for me to give advice. I am not the son who has just lost a parent, and whose living parent cannot even comprehend it. I wondered, how do you tell a person with dementia about the a death in the family? How do you help a person with dementia grieve?
Deciding whether or not to tell them
Experts agree that just because a person can’t remember the name of a missing loved one, does not mean they can’t feel that loss in their lives. What’s different is how they react to loss. A person with dementia may express grief as agitation and restlessness. They may sense that something isn’t right, or that someone close to them is missing, even when they can’t remember who that person is. A person with dementia may confuse the present loss with an earlier one, or be unable to retain the information that the person has died. Nevertheless, in most cases, experts say it’s better to share the news of a death than to pretend nothing has changed.
How to share the news
Have a familiar, trusted person share the news in a calm, clear manner, preferably with few people around. People with dementia are affected by the emotional climate of others, so being surrounded by grieving family members might cause them to respond with increased agitation and restlessness.
Avoid abstract concepts like, “passed away, “is gone”, “is at peace now,” or “is with God.” Simply state that the person died. Keep sentences short, and only provide information that is necessary at that time. The person with dementia may have enough trouble comprehending the death and does not need to know details about the funeral. Allow plenty of time, and be prepared to repeat information frequently as the person will need time to process it.
Planning the Funeral
Individuals with dementia usually benefit from participating in the rituals of death, although these rituals may need to be modified. For example, having a private viewing rather than a public gathering. People with dementia tend to behave appropriately at events such as funerals. They seem to recall the conduct required at such occasions and take cues from the setting and from others.
After the Funeral
Reminiscing provides comfort to everyone. Use photos and tell stories. Help the person express their grief with phrases like, “You sound like you really miss her,” or “Tell me what you miss most.”
Even with all of the above gestures, there is a strong possibility that the person with dementia will continue to ask for the person who has died, wanting to know where they are and when they will be back. For some people, a gentle reminder will work, but for others, like the man in the story, being reminded that the person has died is greatly upsetting. With each reminder, it’s as if they are hearing the news for the first time. Family members, coping with their own grief, have a hard time accepting that their father or mother cannot remember that their spouse has died.
If this happens, give yourself some space and try a different approach. Tune into the emotion beneath the words and respond to that emotion. Often, this overrides the need to have the question answered. “You sound like you really miss her.” Tell me what she was like or what you miss most,” or share your own loss, “I miss her too.”
If reminiscence and responding to the emotion are not working, as a last resort, try distraction. Distraction does not aid the grief process, but may reduce the stress of the moment and allow you to face the challenge in a better frame of mind.
Death in a family is always hard. Helping someone with dementia deal with death adds stress to an already emotional situation. It is important for family members to have good communication so that everyone uses the same techniques and approaches. Be patient, give the person with dementia time, and give yourself time as well.
Two years ago, a friend died suddenly after a horrendously short battle with cancer. I guess we all have our own way of remembering and honoring people we’ve lost. I remember Peg through “Peg miles”.
I am a walker. For 25 years, I’ve walked for exercise and enjoyment. I don headphones, select my favorite exercise album, and I walk. I swing my arms, I sing along, and I do something that is rare for me… I am in the moment.
Walking makes me feel alive and grateful to be healthy and vibrant. As a cancer survivor, I don’t take that for granted. I really, really love walking.
Thirty years ago, my 92 year old grandmother tried to kill herself. They called us from her personal care residence to say she had been found unresponsive, with an empty bottle of pills by her bed. My brother and I rushed to the hospital and heard the sound of her stomach being pumped. For all of you who have never heard this before, it is an awful sound. My brother and I looked at each other, wishing they had not found her in time. Shouldn’t a 92 year old be able to decide when enough is enough?
My grandmother became a widow with two children at 21. Seventy years later, she had buried three husbands, both of her children and one grandchild. Pain from persistent shingles, “pleurisy” and arthritis was constant and all consuming. When doctors gave her enough medicine to control her pain, she was too lethargic and nonfunctioning to live independently. So she faced her own brand of Sophie’s choice — live with pain and be independent, or be pain-free and live in a nursing home. She opted for a third choice.
Everyone called my grandmother Anya, short for Anyuka, the Hungarian word for mother. I think the first grandchild determines what grandparents are called, and my oldest brother chose Anya. In 1931, not knowing any English, Anya left her children with her parents in Hungary and came to America to make a better life for her family. Two years later, she married a widower with children and brought my mother and uncle to this country. Life during the Depression was hard, for Anya and millions of others. But over time, she lived the American dream. She started businesses, and although many failed, some succeeded. Her son became a doctor, and her daughter married a pharmacist. Both had single homes in the suburbs!
Two sisters were faced with who should have a set of dishes that had passed from their grandmother to their mother, and now to them. As they discussed who would get the dishes, they realized that what they both wanted was for their mother and grandmother to “be present” at future family gatherings, and so they developed a plan that worked for them: the dishes don’t really “live” anywhere. At the end of each family event, the dishes are packed into storage bags and taken by whoever is holding the next family event. Whenever the family gets together, the dishes bring up memories and stories, giving their mother and grandmother a presence at the table. I love their solution, because it is about relationships, not ownership. The legacy being passed down is not dishes. It’s loving memories shared by family, and tangible evidence of the good relationship between the sisters. That’s a wonderful legacy.
Two friends have a similar tradition. When their mother died, they couldn’t decide who would get two special items. One was a sterling silver pitcher their mother purchased at an auction when the girls were young. The pitcher had an ornate letter “F” engraved on it, which did not bother their mother. She must have been strangely omniscient, because years later, both girls went on to marry men whose last names began with “F.” Some things are too strange to ponder.
The other item is a beautiful ring their mother purchased during a shopping trip to New York City.
When their mother died, they laid the jewelry out on a table and took turns choosing pieces. Both sisters wanted the pitcher and the ring, and neither could choose one over the other, so they developed a plan to share them, adding their own traditions. The ring is always worn on New Year’s Eve, and the pitcher is always returned with fresh flowers in it. The exchange occurs every year on New Year’s eve. The ring is a wearable memory, an intimate, personal way of staying connected with someone who has died. The pitcher is a physical presence displayed proudly in both homes. Like the dishes, the legacy of the ring and pitcher is about relationships, not ownership.
Last week, I met a woman and her dog walking along a nature trail. As dog lovers do, we started to talk. She said she and her dog walk the two-mile nature trail daily. Recently, she had tried to adopt a second senior dog, to keep her 8-year-old dog company. The rescue organization said that since she was 76, it was likely that something would happen to her during the dog’s lifetime, and the dog would need to be re-homed. Rather than take this risk, they rejected her application. This is what I call the tail wagging the dog.
The numerous benefits that accrue to elderly pet owners are well documented. Pets reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase interaction and physical activity. They provide companionship, reduce depression and decrease loneliness. Senior pet owners visit the doctor less often than seniors who don’t have pets. They tend to have fewer minor health problems, lower medical costs, better psychological well-being, and even higher survival rates following surgery for coronary heart disease!!
Helping someone you care about when they don’t want help is complex. When do you honor their wishes, and when do you superimpose your own beliefs out of a conviction that your instincts are correct? Several years ago, my husband and I faced this question with my mother-in-law. It was among the hardest and most important things we’ve ever done.
It’s hard to say when dependence becomes an addiction, when an aversion to going outside becomes a phobia, when a person moves from set in her ways to obstinate and rigid. Looking back, none of us recalled a particular date. We remembered instead a period of time over which a person we loved and enjoyed became increasingly inflexible, bitter and withdrawn. When, we wondered, did we let go of the woman we had known, and allow this stranger to take her place? When did we begin accepting this diminished version of my mother-in-law, as the real thing?
Father’s Day is coming up. I don’t know what to get for Dad. He has lost so much of his memory. At times, he doesn’t even know me. Why bother?
Dad isn’t the same person he used to be. Sometimes he thinks I am his younger brother, Bill, who died in Korea. It hurts.
For the most part, Mom now takes care of the house. She says she wants to do it while she can. Fortunately, Dad is still mostly able to care for himself. My sister found someone to do their yard work, and she takes them to their doctor visits.
I help by paying their bills. I stay with Dad for a couple of hours every week, so Mom can get out of the house. We just sit, and he talks about things that happened 70 years ago. I want to go out for dinner or a game or something, but he just wants to stay in.
Two years ago, the neighbors called me because his driving was so unsafe. I eventually had to get him to stop driving. Mom and my sister agreed that it was the right thing to do, but I felt awful.
I feel like a mean child.
Oh my. Don’t you see it? You are giving him the best Father’s Day gift of all. You and your sister have his back.
Let’s consider the letter you would have written ten years ago, if you had known the future.
For Father’s Day, Sis and I want you to know that we’ll always be there for you and for Mom. And we’ll do it together.
When the day comes that you no longer can drive safely, we’ll make sure that you won’t hurt yourself or anyone else. We’ll be strong when you can’t be.
Your bills will still be paid on time and that your finances will be well protected.
I’ll listen to your stories knowing that it gives you comfort to relive memories. Don’t worry that you’ll repeat yourself or that you won’t remember things anymore. It’s OK. I’ll be there for you.
Sometimes you tell me that I remind you of Uncle Bill. He’s obviously somebody you miss. I’m glad you see him in me.
As your energy runs down, I’ll keep in mind that just being there means so much. Even if you don’t remember me, I’ll make sure you feel my love through companionship, a touch, my time.
Dad, we’ll stand by you. You can lean on us. We’ll be there for you and Mom, always. You will never have to worry about what happens when you are unable to take care of things yourself. We’ve got your back.
I’ll make mistakes. I’ll be impatient. But I’ll do my best.
And Dad, as you are reaching the end of your journey through life, we’ll still be there and do our best to make sure you aren’t alone.
Dad I love you, and I want you know that we’ve got your back. Happy Father’s Day.”
Jean Long Manteufel, senior move manager and CEO of Long’s Senior Transitions in Appleton, WI writes a column on the first Sunday of each month about life changes associated with aging. She can be reached at 920/734-3260 Jean@TransitionsWithJean.com
“Bill, there is something wrong with the fan,” I said to my husband, in another room. He walked into the kitchen, tried the cooking spray, and said, “There is nothing wrong with the PAM.” Life has been interesting since we started mishearing.