Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Old, frightened, and far away

When your 90-year-old mother gets sick and feels afraid to sleep alone at night, none of her four far-flung offspring can sleep either. The last few days have had us telephoning, emailing, researching, investigating, and contacting. Worrying, pacing, talking, and fretting.

But not sleeping.

My sister, Elizabeth, the only one within driving distance, drove down to Long Island. While she tried to sleep in my mother’s living room, my mother repeatedly called out – about every minute or so – “Elizabeth, are you there?” Distraught, Elizabeth checked her time zones and figured it was safe to call me at 1 a.m. It was. I was busy worrying and researching.

My mother knows that something is very wrong with her cognitive abilities and memory. When she’s drifting off to sleep, the problem is worse: she’s not sure when or where she is. Are her parents still alive? Is she home? She gets so frightened, she can’t bear to be alone and has lately taken to wandering the halls, seeking out anyone for human contact.

During the day, she’s alert and active enough to participate in lots of activities. Her assisted living place is friendly, welcoming, and familiar. And there are things going on all the time. But at night, it’s another story.

So what are we to do? If she moved nearer to one of us, she’d lose the familiarity that is the anchor to her comfort right now. She knows where the dining room is, what she gets to do at 10, 11, and the movies at 2. She knows where her bingo chips are stashed and what to look for in her local newspaper. All these things are the bedrock of her functioning, and she doesn’t want to give them up.

But if she’s ill or tired, frightened or upset, we are all hundreds and thousands of miles away. All of us have reached the point where we check Caller I.D. and our hearts lurch if it’s her area code. We exist in a state of waiting for the other shoe to drop. And they seem to be dropping at a faster pace.

Oh, the world offers such promise in exploring wide open spaces, tackling new opportunities in new locations. My mother’s four kids split to the corners of the globe, but now the law of unintended consequences is playing out all over our age group as we deal with far-away, aging parents.
As I vibrate with the anxiety of “what should we do” and have trouble sleeping, Tim says, “That’s why we’re going to move to be nearer our kid.” So the relocation question for us – which had pretty much resolved in favor of the life we like here in Alaska – is now an open question again.

Eventually, I might be an old person. (I must admit, this whole business has me reflecting on just how old I might appreciate getting.) But just like I’m de-cluttering so our daughter won’t have to clear out my accumulated junk, I don’t want her to have these tortured moments of being far away from something that absorbs her emotional energy. So does that mean we move? Or at least get nearer?

Oh, that’ll have to wait. I can fret about decisions for only one old person at a time, and right now, that’s not me.


  1. So many of us have been through similar scenarios. It's never easy.

  2. Have you talked with the staff in the assisted living home and how they handle her and her peers during her times of anxiety? That may help you to relax a little. My mom got anxious too, but they would talk her down and help her to settle. It didn't matter that she knew we were right here and could see her the next day, she still got anxious. Phone calls help. Nothing fixes it -- except maybe some medicine to ease her nights. Been there. Done that. Decided against the tee-shirt.


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