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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

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About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to the share the good times and discuss the challenges of...  (More)

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Sharing a joke

Uploaded: Jan 29, 2014
My mother has Alzheimer's. She doesn't recognize me, but pretends she does. She has no idea when she last saw me, it could be yesterday or last year. She knows I have kids, but not their names or ages. She remembers where she was born, but not where her children were born. She can read fluently and with expression, but forgets the book's plot. Mom does not always recognize her apartment, but knows every word of every verse of many hymns she sang as a child, as well as all the lyrics to pop songs from the 40s and Broadway musicals. She forgets that my father passed away, but remembers he traveled frequently on business.

It is at once heartbreaking and fascinating to observe what "sticks" and what "slips away" as her dementia progresses.

What "sticks" is her sweet, kind, and accommodating personality and social graces. Always the hostess, she treats her caregivers as guests in her home, asking after their comfort or offering them food and drink. We avoid talking about birthdays or holidays, because she worries that she has not bought presents, or baked a cake or sent cards. She feels responsible for making every occasion happy and festive, and won't be dissuaded from worrying about these tasks. If we help her complete them, she forgets they are done and wants to do them over again.

Christmas is loaded with angst. This is due to a combination of Mom worrying about creating a happy holiday and also wondering why my deceased father is not home from his business trip for his Christmas birthday. My sister ingeniously created a holiday called "World Piece of Chocolate Week" (pun intended), so that Mom could join in the festive atmosphere of the season without having to be anxious about the responsibilities of Christmas. It worked like a charm, Mom loves a celebration, and the other residents in her building even joined in wishing her "Chocolate Week" greetings!

Last week I showed up at Mom's apartment running late, disheveled, and with untied shoes. Mom commented on my shoelaces (due to the safety issue) but politely refrained from commenting on the rest of my appearance. I responded, "I was in a hurry to see you, that's why my shoelaces are untied!" She said, "So, it's my fault?" I took a chance and responded, "Of course it's your fault, you're the mom, it's always the mom's fault, and although it is only 10:30am you would not believe the number of things that are already my fault today!" The caregiver looked at me anxiously until Mom burst out laughing. I was so happy to share a joke with her. It "sticks" that we are both moms of many, and that, despite our best efforts, our kids are not always grateful for all we do for them. I dearly hope it also "sticks" how appreciative I am now for all her patience and love over the years.


Posted by Margaret T, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Jan 29, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Very touching. I am please for you and your mom that she is a "happy" Alzheimer's patient. And what a testament to humor! Lovely.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Margaret T,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, we feel fortunate that she is for the most part happy and enjoying life. There is something to be said for "living in the moment". And, despite memory issues, humor is a wonderful way to connect with her.

Posted by ds, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Jan 29, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 29, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear ds,
Thank you for the perceptive comment!

Posted by PR, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 8:46 am

Beautiful, Sally. Thank you!!!!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 9:09 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks PR!

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Once again you have prove the benefits of humor! Thanks for sharing.

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Correction to last comment: proof instead of prove

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Maria, for reading and commenting! Laughter is the best medicine!

Posted by wonderful, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 6:53 pm

You're amazing, Sally. Every one of your pieces is a delight to read.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 30, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear wonderful,
Thank you for your kind words!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Feb 1, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Being in the moment allows us all to laugh sometimes. Fun piece, Sally, that also had me pondering. Thank you. (I tried to comment earlier, but I must not have done something right. Forgot how perhaps?!)

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 1, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, LJ, for reading and commenting!

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Feb 8, 2014 at 8:10 pm

Sally, your post brought me tears. I don't think we realize how much our mothers sacrificed until we become mothers ourselves.

Your post also brought memories of my grandmother (years ago) in the later stages of dementia, who asked my brother how much she owed him for mowing the lawn because she thought he was the gardener. Alzheimers and dementia are so hard to watch. It's really heartbreaking.

I'm sure your mom knows how much you appreciate her. It's so wonderful that you are able to visit her regularly. I hope the two of you are able to share many more laughs along the way.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 8, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Erin, for sharing a few tears with me!

Posted by GC, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 20, 2014 at 8:26 pm

You are a good daughter...and mother...and wife and community member. Thank you for sharing this personal piece. It helps the rest of us cope who feel like they are not doing things perfectly enough either.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 20, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi GC,
Being a mom and being perfect are mutually exclusive, so let's just enjoy the ride.

Posted by Sue, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 27, 2014 at 11:40 pm

One evening, my husband and I arrived at the local assisted living home where my mother-in-law, with Alzheimer, had been living since it was no longer feasible for her to live at home with my father-in-law. She remembered me as a "friend" about whom she had warm feelings, but could she could no longer remember how she and I were connected. So, she greeted me warmly, as she always did, and introduced me to her son (my husband). We played along, shaking hands and saying hello to one another. Then, I leaned over to me mother-in-law and whispered, "I'm married to him." Without missing a beat, she replied, "My, you work fast!" Though she could no longer remember many things; she retained a wicked sense of humor! We simultaneously mourned the parts of her that were lost, and enjoyed the parts that remained sharp as a tack! Humor always seems to help.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 28, 2014 at 6:19 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Sue. I love that story! That is so much like my mom. I know we are lucky that despite their illness we can still laugh with them.

Posted by Mother of 4, a resident of Palo Verde School,
on Feb 28, 2014 at 8:41 am

Pleased to see this still open for discussion.

Taking this one step further, I am interested in how Sally and others find explaining to young children what is happening to their grandparents. Explaining that adult children of elderly parents have to start to reverse the roles can be hard for young children to understand. Many grandparents are still vital members of the family, taking their grandchildren on fun trips, doing babysitting and busy with exciting lives of their own. Other grandparents are frail and need more and more help from the younger members of the family. How do you deal with the "it's not fair" when comparisons are made with their friends or the "when are we going to have to do that for you?" comments which inevitably come up.

I find that my kids at times are very understanding until it actually affects them. They see grandparents and even great grandparents getting older and they accept it reasonably well. But when they see friends doing fun things with their grandparents it does make them ask the inevitable questions and these questions seem to be much harder than some of the other questions they ask about comparisons with other families. They seem to accept comparisons on financial levels or family values much better than elderly grandparent comparisons.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 28, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Mother of 4,
Thanks for reading and commenting.
My kids are more accepting of my parents' decline and deal with it better than I do, as this is how they have always known them. If kids are having a hard time with it, though, or feeling envious of friends with healthy, fun, grandparents, it is probably for the same reasons that I am having a hard time, which is grief. I think acknowledging the grief, sadness, and loss we feel when loved ones are aging and ill can go a long way to helping us deal with the other emotions that creep in (envy, resentment, jealousy, anger..)

I'm pretty sure my kids are taking mental notes of some of the difficulties we've had getting ailing parents to stop driving and accept caregivers in the home. I am certain we will hear about it from the kids if we are equally uncooperative with these issues as we age!

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