Elizabeth: a close call

Abdoulaye and Elizabeth 
Elizabeth dancing with Abdoulaye, ~2006, when she was 74. She loved to dance.

I plan to go here at some length about things that have nothing to do with gardens, so feel free to bail. We almost lost husband Steve’s mother just after Christmas, though, and I wanted to say more than a word or two about her here.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Elizabeth before, but I’ve got more than one half-finished post on the topic. She has Alzheimer’s, and moved here to Bozeman (after major prodding and pleading) maybe four and a half years ago. For several years she was in her own house just two blocks away, with increasing amounts of outside help, plus lots from us. We would garden together at her house, she and I, though I learned to store new plants at my house; they tended to disappear when they were at hers.

It amazed me how completely Elizabeth retained key parts of her personality even as her mind left her. Balancing a checkbook had clearly become impossible well before the move, as husband Steve discovered when he tried to straighten out her affairs, but she kept saying “we need a woman” right through 2007, being an adamant supporter of Hilary Clinton, if only because she was a woman. Even more telling, practically every person who met her here in Bozeman used the word “sweet” to describe her.

It’s true. If all mothers-in-law treated their daughters (or sons)-in-law as Elizabeth did me, there would be no mother-in-law jokes.

We’ve been incredibly lucky, in dozens of ways, throughout this awful journey. Elizabeth did get the anxiety typical of Alzheimer’s patients, but not the aggression. Also, if you’re going to take such a horrible trip, my brothers-in-law make the ideal companions. There have been no serious disputes about care or money. Lots of discussions and occasional disagreements, yes, but no accusations, no nastiness whatsoever. After one brother married several years back, his physician-wife’s expertise got added to the mix as well. It’s nice to have a doctor in the house.

Just over a year ago we took the huge step of moving Elizabeth into a retirement home—a house maybe a mile away, with great mountain views, dedicated and loving staff—it’s amazing. I’ll never forget dropping in one day to find Brandon making a quiche from scratch for supper. Since we’d been taking Elizabeth there for daycare for months, it had the added advantage of being familiar, which is enormous. And unlike any other place we looked at, they let Elizabeth keep her dog.

Here she is just a few months ago, being mock-serious–she'd never stand so straight nor look so stern unless she was joking– with Precious in the background.

We’ve always had Elizabeth over to the house at least once a week, usually for dinner and a movie. Old movies with familiar faces, and animal movies, especially the Merekats DVDs (a Christmas gift from one of the brothers), remained engaging when all interest in a movie per se had faded. But by now it’s just about impossible to include her in any general activity—she’s almost completely non-verbal, or at least incomprehensible, and gets up repeatedly during any meal—so instead of having her over on Christmas itself (which doesn’t mean anything to her any more) we planned to bring her over the next day.

But Boxing Day started with a phone-call from Marian (who owns and operates Bear Creek Respite Home), saying that she thought Elizabeth might have pneumonia. I’ve done almost all the doctor’s visits since Elizabeth came to town (this is a big part of why I took up knitting—so I’d have something to do in waiting rooms that would let me talk as well) but Steve took this one on, heading for Bear Creek just after eight a.m. and then on to the Emergency Room, since nothing else was open. He didn’t return till early afternoon, and he’d had to leave his mother in the hospital.

Marian had been right—Elizabeth did have pneumonia, and badly. (I read up on it a bit, and apparently it can develop with incredible speed, so the fact that it was a severe case does NOT mean that the staff missed something.) That evening, Steve and I and son #1 visited her, and where she’d been almost comatose that morning, now she was wide awake and therefore full of understandable apprehension about these strange surroundings. The anxiety was hard to watch, but she was so much better than we’d expected that we still went home happy. Apparently antibiotics can still work miracles. Two days later, after a few ups and downs, Elizabeth went home to Bear Creek.

When I visited her there a couple of days later, she had all her own expressions back—her wide-eyed mock-astonishment when I pretended I’d beat up the staff if they didn’t treat her right, her smile when I said “I love you,”—and none of the anxious urgency we’d seen in the hospital. She was still on oxygen, but whereas in the hospital she’d plucked at those plastic tubes in her nose, now she ignored them. No doubt she’d gotten used to them, but I suspect that what really counts is that she’d come home.

6 Responses to Elizabeth: a close call

  1. Thanks for sharing Elizabeth’s journey with us, Kate. It is also a journey for the family, and I think many of us are with you in spirit as we read this.
    I hope she continues to improve. Blessings on everyone.

  2. Having lost my own sweet mother-in-law two years ago, I very much empathize with your journey with Elizabeth. You are blessed to have her. She is blessed to have you.

  3. I love my MIL too – just hope I can be as good a one if/when my kids find their significant others. Glad Elizabeth’s back where she feels comfortable. It’s great that they let her keep Precious with her; that must make a huge difference.

  4. That is such a cruel disease. To have to watch it eat away at someone you love – so hard for the families. She is so lucky to have so many loving kids and kids-in-law, many are not so fortunate. I’m glad you are spared the aggressive side of dementia – that has to make it even harder. Fingers crossed she stays physically healthy and enjoys many a quiche and dog snuggle!

  5. This story resonated so much with me Kate as we’ve just spent Christmas in a similar fashion though luckily not with the pneomonia bit. My MIL has Dementia and hubby plus his brother had to take the sad decision last year to move her into a care home close to my BIL. I wish the home she’s in was as nice as yours sounds. We’ve yet to find a place that seems to understand the need for personal/social care as well as looking after basic physical needs.
    Luckily MIL is just anxious, not aggressive, but that anxiety means that hubby/BIL are constantly beating themselves up on whether they’ve done the right thing for her.
    I hope your MIL continues on the road to recovery.

  6. Thank you all–I had a detailed comment that just got eaten by Typepad (ARE YOU LISTENING, TYPEPAD?) snd this is a quick rewrite:
    Susan, for you to be offering sympathy to others at this time is extraordinarily generous. Thank you.
    Dorothy–We’re the lucky ones, aren’t we? To have a MIL who embraces us rather than judging us.
    Amanda–Yes, keeping Precious was crucial, especially when she first moved. I’m not sure she’d have survived without her beloved dog.
    Karen–Tonight it was shepherd’s pie. These people are amazing.
    VP–How is it that caretakers can not understand that people still have feelings even if they can’t speak? Here’s hoping your husband and BIL can forgive themselves for doing what was necessary.

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