One of the cruelest things that can happen to a mother is to be robbed of her memories.
My own mother, who was a snowbird in Citrus County late in life, died a few years ago. However, most of her memories disappeared long before she died.
She had some form of memory loss that progressively reduced her ability to remember what was happening. Long-term memory was better than short term. There was sadness and humor to be found in spending so much time with her in her final years here.
Those times came rushing back to me last Friday evening in Inverness at the annual Chamber of Commerce Awards banquet. I was asked to present The Rick Quinn Distinguished Citizen Award to Debbie Selsavage, the creator of Coping with Dementia, a local advocacy group that fights for the rights and awareness of people with memory issues.
Debbie turned her own experience with her late husband’s memory loss into a passion for exploring and discovering services that can help those in need. Her groundbreaking approach offers positive ways for caregivers and the community at large to help those with memory loss.
She was one of the first people who stepped up to the plate to help us deal with my mother’s failing memory and she helped make her final years more enjoyable for all involved.
That’s not to say there were not moments when we were challenged at a very high level. In their final years, both my mother — Peg Mulligan — and mother-in-law Joan Hemsworth — were residents of Cedar Creek ALF in Crystal River. It is an outstanding facility where the staff always treated our two Moms with love and understanding.
The loss of memory reduces the protective barriers that most parents have in place to shield their children from some of the inevitable sad events of childhood.
In her later years, my mother could never hide the truth as she saw it. That is when she told me that she never paid the doctor’s bill from the day I was born.
According to Mom, the doctor was late and obviously intoxicated at the time of delivery. She refused to pay the $25 bill and gave him hell for his poor performance.
It was a little sobering to learn that I was a ‘bad debt baby’ from the very beginning.
Sometimes secrets are a good thing.
Logic can also disappear when memory becomes an issue. At one point during her time at Cedar Creek she grew lonesome and missed the women she played cards with back on Long Island. Being a lifelong problem solver, she simply had a cab called and it picked her up at the front door of the Crystal River ALF.
She told the driver to take her to Long Island.
Since the trip was 1,118 miles, the cab driver wisely checked with the folks at the ALF front desk before following the instructions.
Peggy got mad at the cab driver.
Debbie Selsavage’s wise advice was to always avoid conflict with memory patients and always try to be positive.
It was hard.
It was my job one Sunday morning to take both of the Mom’s to church at St. Benedict’s. It was regularly a three-hour event to pick them both up at Cedar Creek, load the walkers and all the related materials into the vehicle and get them to their seats for the services. When services were over, it was a repeat event of moving the entourage back to Cedar Creek.
This was a particularly long Sunday service and I was finally pulling back into the driveway of Cedar Creek so both Moms could have lunch. That’s when Peggy said, “I thought you were taking us to church?”
Joan looked a little confused for a second, but then she joined right in. “That’s right; I thought we were going to church?”
The three-hour ordeal had completely slipped both of their minds and we weren’t even out of the car yet.
That goes to Debbie Selsavage’s most poignant advice. When you have a loved-one with memory issues, you can only live in the moment. What happened 10 minutes ago often is of no concern. And plans for tomorrow are part of the distant future.
What is happening at this very moment is all that matters. So make the most of it. Laugh. Find joy. Don’t ask difficult questions. Don’t get frustrated. Just be thankful.
It was less than a month before my mother died when I stopped at her Cedar Creek apartment at about 7:30 p.m. to check in before she went to bed. As she opened the door, I could see she had been crying.
“I am so lonesome,” she told me. “No one has come to see me in days.”
Even though I had seen her earlier that same day, it made no sense to explain. I just took her in my arms and held her.
“Thanks Danny for coming,” she said. Danny is my younger brother who lives about 1,000 miles away.
For that moment, I became Danny and just held her.
Peggy Mulligan died on Aug. 16, 2018, at the age of 87. Joan Hemsworth died on Jan. 4, 2020, at the age of 97.
We miss them every day. Especially on Mother’s Day.
Gerry Mulligan is the publisher of the Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.