Hiring, Firing and Blowing Smoke

Hiring, Firing and Blowing Smoke describes how we discovered that mother was slipping, what we did, and how we overcame some of the common challenges many of us find in caregiving.

As we began to spend more time with mama, we realized that she needed additional help at home to manage day-to-day chores.  For years, we had continued to keep the yard man that dad had hired years ago. Since she knew him and was comfortable with him, mama was fine having Bill come to work in the yard. She had help in the house for many years, but for some reason, there had been nobody to help out recently.  And, of course, nobody could really fill Mama’s shoes according to her. 

Quite a number of times, we hired someone to come in to clean and make sure that mama was all right. But anyone we hired was gone within a month or two. Nothing we tried seemed to help. For someone with diminished mental capacity, mama was extremely clever when she wanted or needed to be.  Mother would way something like “Oh, I’m not sure what happened. I think she got another job,” or “I’m all by myself.  I don’t have to have someone to clean up after me. It’s a nuisance. “ She would often complain that it was too expensive and that she just didn’t have that kind of money anyway. 

About money. Mother and dad had become adults during the Great Depression, and were so tight with their money that it screamed. The feeling of not having enough permeated their psyches, and they passed along some of that to the three of us. The truth was that the two of them had lived frugally all of their lives, scrimping, saving and investing wisely. We hardly ever went out to eat, and when we did it was usually the occasional trip to Morrison’s Cafeteria after church. Mother sewed  her clothes and mine to save money. She loved it and I hated it. They liked the “Blue Light Specials” at Kmart. They splurged little, but when they did it was on music lessons and concerts, books, travel, our college funds, and big purchases like a nice home in a good neighborhood.

Over the years, they had managed very well. Now, in her dotage, mother had a very nice nest egg. Not enough to live a wanton high life. But enough to cover her needs. However, the financial fears and frugality were so deeply ingrained that she knew no other reality. In fact, we realized later that as her grasp of reality slipped in her final years, she lived in fear of impoverishment. Getting her to accept help was an uphill battle at best. 

My brother John, the one who visited most often, was tasked with managing the house and mother’s supports. So, when he met with the next prospective housekeeper, he made sure to explain to mama the importance of having this support. It appeared she had deferred to his wishes.  When talking about it later, he remembered that she smiled and told him how much she appreciated our concern. “You are so good to me, but you worry too much. Your old mother has been taking care of herself for a lot longer than you have, you know.”  Left handed compliments were her specialty. She also specialized in appearing to defer to others. But, she hardly ever did that. She liked being in control, especially as control was slipping. She was very crafty and knew how to get her way, as do many southern women. 

Mama explained: “The neighbors are like family. They take me grocery shopping and sometimes to the mall. And Louise picks me up for church.  And I still drive some, you know.  Not on the big roads, but to get music and so forth.”  Her comment “and so forth” would become one of the many expressions she would use more often over time to mask her diminishing vocabulary. 

A very deep bond had formed between mother and the couple next door some years ago when their teenager was a baby. Mary had gone back to work and had someone fulltime looking after the baby.  The child care worker was not to take him out anywhere in her car, but she did. And mother noticed. She told Mary about the lapse. They were like family after that. Not only were the neighbors incredibly helpful to mother during the last few years, they provided us with updates on her condition, and how they saw her coping.

Mother also used the neighbors as a great smokescreen with us when she felt we were interfering too much (which, unfortunately, was often). She’d let us know that they were always around , grocery shopping and helping out with little things that were now too difficult for her to handle. When we could, we’d hire people for a short while, and then mama would fire them.

That became ritualized into a dance that occupied a fair amount of all of our time until we realized that we could let certain things slide.  Following repeated failures, we stopped putting so much effort into that task. We were to learn that caring for an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s required a practical focus on big issues along with a willingness to let go of those things that could be postponed.  Those skills became lifelines for us later on. 

We were also worried about her driving, especially after she told us that she only used the car for short trips, like to the music store, and always avoided “the big roads.”  The big roads, we discovered, referred to the two interstates that bisected Winston Salem. She had never liked driving on the interstate, but had never called it “the big road” until after we noticed her problems with her memory. 

We were to learn many times over the years that,  in spite of the gradual diminution of her mental capacity, her ability to take control and to do things her way remained a strong force – and made for interesting family dynamics. In fact, she may have become a bit more committed to getting her way as one method of controlling her world which was fast becoming much more confusing. 

Her driver’s license was coming up for renewal. Naively, we thought that, with her memory problems, she might not even notice the license expiration date. We figured she would simply let her license lapse. We were wrong. She definitely noticed, and she was determined to keep her license. Again, this represented an important part of being an independent adult.  She told us not to worry, that she would handle things. And handle them she did. 

Mother contacted Louise, her friend who took her to church, and asked Louise to take her to take the test to get her license renewed. By now, there were so many times when mother was confused about her music schedule, or billing, or her bank balance. But, she knew she needed to renew her license, and it was a priority for her. Louise and my brother John were quite close, so she called him to tell him about the license renewal. Interestingly, mother had not mentioned this to any of us.  As Louise and John talked, they both figured that mother would fail the test, and that would be the end of that. So, nobody was really worried about mother’s driving at that point. 

A few days later, Louise called John in hysterics. “You would not believe what your mother did this morning, she said.” John was afraid that perhaps there had been a scene, or mother had become upset at not having her license renewed.  But that wasn’t it at all. Louise explained that mother had been dressed and ready to go when she arrived to pick her up. And mother arrived at the Motor Vehicle Department battle ready. With the skill of any general, mother had planned her attack and executed her strategies brilliantly. She chatted up the man who was giving her the paper and pencil test, flirting and telling him how smart he was, and asking for definitions to some of the questions. Even with early Alzheimer’s , she had still managed to outfox the clerk and get him to give her answers to many of the questions without his having any idea he was doing that. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Louise.  “Here she was, just talking away, and getting one answer after another. When I picked her up, I could tell she was ready for that test. She was really something else. And she knew exactly what she was doing! In fact, she said to me as we left, ‘Now wasn’t that just the nicest young man?’ ”

John and Louise had a good laugh, and then he called me and our brother Tom to give us the bad news: mama still had a valid driver’s license.  In our next phone conversations with her, she let each of us know that, “yes, of course I got my license renewed. “ She crowed a bit, and was quite pleased with herself, if the truth be told. She had a right to be proud. She had emerged victorious this time in one of her many battles with her brain.

Moving Mama: Hiring, Firing and Blowing Smoke
Anne Hays Egan, New Ventures Consulting
Ezine Articles Expert Author

Copyright, New Ventures Consulting, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

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