Recognizing elder's life legacy strategy to cope with loved one's decline
Dear Carol: The New Year is arriving and I'm trying to make my annual list of what I'm happy about and what I want to improve. This year, I'm struggling.
My once-healthy mom had a sudden, massive stroke in October and is now in a nursing home. She's always been vibrant, both physically and mentally, as well as a kind, loving mother and grandmother. Her volunteer work is a local legend.
Now, she's barely able to speak. She can't eat without help. Her mind is muddled, and the doctor says that she is unlikely to improve. I feel my memories of her dynamic life slipping away and that makes me feel sorry for my own loss. Then I feel guilty about my self-pity because I know that I should only be thinking of Mom.
How do I find anything positive in this New Year knowing that Mom's future is so bleak and that I'm losing not only her past, but my own past with her? KW
Dear KW: I am so sorry for what you are going through. I've been in similar situations so I understand your feelings and your guilt — unearned as it is.
Admitting that you are in emotional pain does not diminish your mom's suffering. While wallowing in self-pity is generally negative and not helpful for the long term, pretending that the feelings aren't there isn't healthy either. Most of us need time to work through life traumas. Writing to express your feelings is a significant start for you.
A journey into the past could help both of you. Continue bringing mementoes from your mom's life into her room. Pictures of the family are perfect but also, if available, pictures or certificates of her being recognized for her volunteer work would be wonderful. Treasured keepsakes, drawings by grandchildren and other small items can make the room homey but this is about more than hominess.
These reminders are for you, the staff and visitors, as much as for your mom. She's had a full life and, even though it's now limited, she is still living the life that she has.
Consider adding a whiteboard to her room so that you can note many of your mom's accomplishments for others to see. You could decorate it seasonally. Being a wonderful mother and grandmother can be number one on her list of accomplishments, but also list places where she volunteered and what she did for the organizations, as well as hobbies and historical information from her life.
Creating this written evidence of your mom's legacy will reinforce your own memories. It will also be an effective way to provide visitors and staff with communication cues as to how she'd like to be addressed and what she'd enjoy having people talk about.
Keep in mind that no matter how old a person becomes, or what happens to that person's health, nothing takes away the legacy of their lives. In your mom's case, she's touched many people during her decades on earth and traces of her will remain in the hearts and minds of the people affected long after she is gone.
If you go back in time and work out how your Mom's life has made an impact on her part of the world you will, I hope, slowly become aware that you aren't losing her completely and that you never will.
KW, you'll likely backslide into self-pity from time to time, and that's normal. However, the act of keeping your mom's legacy alive could help you face the New Year with a feeling of purpose and more comfort. I wish you both the best.