Monday, August 25, 2008

My Trip Home: Feeling Useful

I’ve been meaning to write more about my trip home, but since I limit my blogging to evenings and weekends, writing time has been rather scarce!

Suffice it to say, it was a splendid 3-week visit with my family. But I didn’t get much rest.

For the first couple of weeks, I helped Mom de-clutter and organize her house. She's a very clean housekeeper (I’d eat off her floor) but she’s a pack-rat extraordinaire. Which means that by the end of two weeks, we’d thrown out 18 bags of garbage (mostly old clothes and papers) and donated 5 more bags to charity! I organized. I sorted. I “edited ruthlessly”, as they say. I accumulated like with like. Which means that I put the books with the books, the pens with the pens (she had about a million pens) and the socks with the socks. Christmas stuff went into containers with other Christmas stuff and all her greeting cards (like me, she adores cards and buys lovely ones, but then can’t find them later) found homes with all the other greeting cards in a nice box labeled, genuiusly, “Greeting Cards”.

Clothes went back into closets (instead of neatly folded piles) and old hangers went into the trash. We threw out fridge magnets (and the yellowed notes beneath them). We put stuff into baskets that didn’t seem to have any other category but belonged together.

We took things off the walls to help the rooms breathe a little and threw out everything tacky that wasn’t tied down. Mom has lots of beautiful things, and a lovely character home, but it is hidden by “stuff”, much of it stuff that people have given her over the years that aren’t her taste but that she doesn’t have the heart to throw out (like angel ornaments and scented candles and cutesy knickknacks).

And did I mention the photographs? To heck with albums! The photos all went into a nice photo box, which is more fun to look at any way, all the years mixed up together.

Besides the organizing, we also visited Dad a lot.

Dad’s in a local nursing home and hasn’t been doing well at all, hence my trip home. When I was home in May, he seemed to be failing quickly. He has a degenerative brain disease and has completely lost his balance and coordination, and his speech is slurred. He’s in a wheelchair and needs full-time care. He is developing dementia and is often confused. When I was home in May, he wasn’t well and had begun to lose his ability to swallow and had many choking incidents and aspiration. Due to the choking, he became depressed and no longer wanted to eat, so he began to lose weight. This continued as they modified his diet and provided more assistance with meals, but Mom was very worried throughout the summer, each day worse than the previous.

So I went home expecting the worst, but miraculously he seemed to turn a corner in the days before my arrival. The swallowing improved (or stopped getting worse, at least), and with it his spirits. His appetite returned and he is more “himself” these days. So I had some really good visits with him. He still has days when he’s confused and would travel the halls in his wheelchair and seemed to not know I was there. But he was often more lucid and content than when I was there in May. And he’s re-gained the weight, thanks to calorie-replacement drinks and a modified diet and Mom’s tenacity (he will always eat for her and she is constantly bringing him good foods to encourage his eating). So the visits with Dad were good and I was glad I had come home.

We also decorated his room a little, and put up some hooks for his hats (he loves ball caps, mostly with fishing-related mottos, since he was an avid sport fisherman, or Toronto Maple Leaf logos, since he still holds out hope for them to win a Stanley Cup). I framed and put up two lovely salmon prints Mom had bought and a sweet little wall-hanging Mom got that says “Wishin’ I was Fishin’” We also got him a new comforter and a whole pile of new clothes for his birthday.

David arrived for my last week home and together we had a marvelous time, taking care of Mom and visiting Dad.

David made friends with all my new buddies at the nursing home. I love everyone at the nursing home - they are such a great community, from the nurses and the resident assistants and the cooks, to the residents themselves and their families. Thanks to my mother (who is immensely personable and compassionate and knows literally everyone), I now know many of the 30 residents in the home and have developed a fondness for many (some with Alzheimers, who don’t remember you the next day, and some with strokes and speech issues who just grasp your hand and hold on for dear life and smile at you while you talk to them about anything and everything you can think of).

At the nursing home, Mom is a fixture and is loved by many of the residents because she visits them and gets to know everyone. She is the kind of person who is genuinely interested in other people and can make conversation with anyone!
There are some wonderful personalities at the nursing home and it’s very easy to fit right in as long as you’re comfortable talking to people and don’t mind having your hand grasped in a death grip by some resident hell-bent on getting you to help them escape.

It’s an awesome place where you don’t feel judged at all and anything you can do to help is appreciated. It’s a place where you feel useful, simply because every twenty seconds there is some miniature crisis in the making – like two residents getting their wheelchairs stuck together (this happens a lot) or picking up their dropped cookie (the 3-second rule is extended to 30 seconds here, due to slowness). There is always someone who needs a cup of water or for you to take back their cup of water because they don’t want it anymore and are now pouring it on the floor. They need you to change the channel when thirteen of them are sitting in the lounge, trapped into watching Baywatch on the big screen TV at full volume because no one remembers how to use the remote. And by the way, they all love CSI Miami.

It was a great trip. I felt useful and loved. I felt at home.

I hope when I’m old or infirm that I’m surrounded by love and a person like my mother who will sit with me for hours, even if I make no sense. There is so much love at nursing homes, but there are also people who spend hours alone.

So when we get back from Europe, I plan to volunteer at either a nursing home or a hospice. The help is needed. Even if it’s just flipping the pages of a gardening magazine for someone who loves the outdoors but can’t lift a finger any more. A voice, a kind word, a little of your time means so much. So if you aren’t raising kids or already caregiving, consider it. Or better yet, volunteer to help someone in your own family, even the grouchy old aunt you never liked. Maybe she has mellowed and could use your help. And maybe she is actually an interesting old coot if you take the time to get to know her.

You’ll be surprised how rewarding it feels to be needed. Plus, the old guys are forever telling you how great you look.


  1. Hi Terri!

    You are more than welcome :) I'm so happy you liked it all :) I'm also happy that you had a nice time at home even if it was a bit hard too. Aww I almost cried when you wrote about the retirement home, sounds like the best of places for your Dad, after being at home that is. Everyone seemed to caring and loving!

    Haha what a coincidence that you just found a Chimichurri recipe just a few days before!!

    I like flaky salt, it's really good on French Fries, food in general, meat etc Maldon Seasalt is the best one I've found so far.

    Aww, thankyou :) I'm so happy that you liked it :)

    Have a great wednesday!

    Hugs, Susanne

  2. SO happy to hear of your trip. My goodness (and I have said this before), but you have a way of writing a tale that just brings us in and makes me want to keep reading more.

    It sounds like you had a very productive and satisfying trip, and I am glad to hear that your dad is more comfortable. Your mum must have so enjoyed your company and help!

    I agree with you on the nursing home thing: when I was still nursing, I worked in a nursing home and enjoyed the compliments that would come my way. The women and men, alike, would gush over (get this!) my TEETH and HAIR!! Obviously not because of my stunning beauty, but because I had a full set of teeth and a thick head of hair. Still, I'll take a compliment whenever I can!!

    SO good to have you back!!

  3. Oh how I loved reading this, Terri, from the paragraphs about decluttering to your decision to volunteer at a nursing home. Your insights had me grinning and recognizing similar moments that I could not articulate as well as you have.

    So glad that you found your dad in better health and spirits...can't help but wonder how much that had to do with knowing you were coming or that you were there.

    Your mom sounds like an angel on earth!

    Yes!! If you come to Maine, even as close as Bangor or to Freeport, do let me know. I have family in Bangor and could always take a dual-purpose trip to meet you. I'd love that.

    When are you leaving for Europe?

  4. Awww, I loved reading this post! You are such a kind, wonderful person (take after your mother I see!) and it shows in your words and thoughts. Very inspiring. I'm so glad you took that trip. It sounds like it was a bit of a soul-cleansing for you!

  5. Hi, nice to see you back. When you finished tidying your Mom's house it must have felt like a breath of fresh air! I like to declutter frequently; simple and elegant is the way to go. I, like your mother, am unable to toss things people have given me. Feel too guilty, I suppose.

    My girlfriend who lives in Edmonton, is going through much the same thing you are. Her mother died several years ago however and about 2 or 3 years ago she had to put her father in a home. He has recently declined health-wise and now she is heading out to Ottawa to put him in a 24 hour care facility for the last months of his life. She talks on the phone to him and sometimes he's "there" and sometimes he isn't. It seems sad to me that so many lives end this way. I wonder sometimes, if this isn't a way to help ease our way out of the world ~ at some point, you just get tired of life. Still, after a life lived to degenerate and have to depend on people constantly is hard.

    I have always wanted to donate time to a senior citizen's complex and have them teach me cribbage. I have thus far been unable because I can't commit to any regular times because of my son and hubby's eratic hours. I hope with time to be able to do so.

    I have always volunteered as much as I could. It is a good way to get out there and get involved in the community. Elderly people have a lot to teach us if we'd just let them!

    I am glad your 3 week visit went quite well. I'm sure there were not-so-great moments too but overall your Mother probably loved having you there.

    I've moved my blog over to

    Hope to see you there!

  6. Hi--enjoyed your post. I spend a lot of time at nursing homes because my mother-in-law is at one and my father-in-law is at a rehabilitations place (he will move this week to an assisted care facility). All that you say is so true and there are plenty of opportunities to love on people!