too much martha (and not enough Mary)

Musings of a flawed Christian who tries hard

I Know My Name

We got an interesting phone call from Grace Pointe the other day. One of the aides that Mom particularly likes called to find out Mom’s middle name.

“I asked her if she had a middle name, and she said, ‘No,'” the aide reported. “Is that true?”

“No,” my husband said. “She has a middle name. It’s Mae.”

How odd. For 86 years–her entire life–Mom has had the same middle name. Now she can’t remember it. It seems unfathomable that something that personal, that close to her soul, could be forgotten.

The loss staggers us.

Your friend,

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Good Dishes

In my last post, I mentioned the fact that Mom had never used many of her nice dishes, saving them instead for “good.” Mom was like that with a lot of her possessions. When we moved her from her apartment into assisted living, I found a whole box of decorative candles that had never seen the light of day. Each had been labeled with the date she’d received them and from whom. I assumed she liked them because she’d kept them for years. But why keep them in a box? Why not use them? I also ran across a big box full of special hand lotions and soaps, all in pretty, seasonal dispensers. Not a single one had been used. Apparently she was keeping these for “good” as well. But “good” never happened for Mom or for her possessions. Instead, her soap and her candles went into the church rummage sale, and her dishes will soon follow. How sad.

This made me take a critical look at things I’ve been hanging on to but never use, like the crystal bowl and matching dishes we received as a wedding gift 33 years ago. Or the soup tureen and matching bowls my workmates bought me for my bridal shower. Or the cups I bought when I was a French major in college, with words like “le chat” and “le poulet” printed on the sides. They all made the journey with us from one house to the next, never once emerging from their bubble wrap. How sad.

I might not be the wisest person on the planet, but I’m going to dispense a little advice here today: If you have good dishes, use them. Take them out of the china hutch or the box on the basement shelf or the high kitchen cupboard and use them. Enjoy them. That’s why you have them. And if you have some items you never use, get rid of them. Give them to someone who will use them and enjoy them. Otherwise they’re just added weight on your life.

Trying to lighten my load,
Your friend,

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I’ve been working in our basement for the past couple days, trying to winnow down some of Mom’s many possessions. This time around I targeted all the good dishes Mom had acquired over the years. Aside from some flowered plates that had once belonged to his grandmother, my husband professed to not recognize anything else. (I didn’t, either.) Apparently Mom had set aside many of the nicer things she owned for “good,” and “good” never happened. After I dealt with the dishes, I moved on to some boxes of miscellaneous “stuff.” One box contained every insole, heel pad, bunion pad, and corn cushion she’d ever purchased in her life. Some were absolutely ancient (and crumbly with age). Another box contained bottle after bottle and jar after jar of shoe polish–grey, blue, red, black, brown–you name it, she owned it. My husband spied one jar in particular and said, “Is that mink oil?” I answered in the affirmative. “Has it been used?” I unscrewed the lid. “No.” Probably three years earlier she’d pitched a conniption fit because she needed mink oil for her shoes and she didn’t have mink oil and couldn’t we find her some mink oil? Nothing else would do, it had to be mink oil. After searching high and low at various stores (without success), I think we finally ordered it online and presented it to her triumphantly. Let the oiling of the shoes commence! Instead of using it, however, she’d just poked it in the box and forgotten about it. Was it a test to see how far we’d go to keep her happy, or did she truly want/need it? We’ll never know.

In that same box, clear at the bottom, I came across no fewer than three pairs of mud-brown shoelaces that were made specifically to fit the ugly orthopedic-style shoes she wears. Now, clear back in March of 2014, I blogged about the fact that we’d switched out Mom’s original shoelaces with some elastic ones, hoping that the switch would make it easier for her–or the staff–to get her shoes on her feet. She did not like the new shoelaces, however, and the following week we decided to switch back to the original laces that we’d left with the staff. Except that none of the aides could find the laces when we asked for them, so then we launched ourselves on a multi-store search (again!) for replacements. We went to 13 stores total looking for the laces we needed, and it was only through the goodwill of a local shoe store that kept a box of “orphan” laces that we found them at all. And the whole time we were searching, Mom had three perfectly good pairs in her box of shoe polish. We didn’t know of their existence, mainly because the sheer quantity of stuff Mom owned obscured their existence. They got lost in the piles of “too much.”

Anyway, we shook our heads at the irony of the situation.

Your friend,

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A Good Excuse

In the movie “On Golden Pond,” there’s a scene where Dabney Coleman’s character Bill thanks Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) for letting Norman’s daughter, Chelsea, and him visit the cabin on Golden Pond.
“I’m frankly surprised Chelsea could find the way,” Norman retorted. “Do you visit your folks, young man?”
“Uh, no, both of my parents are dead,” Bill replied, startled.
Norman nodded. “Then you have a good excuse.”

Lately I’ve come to appreciate having a good excuse not to visit Mom. The last visits have been rough, so say the least. Mom has gotten high-centered on the topic of somebody not being happy with something and can NOT let this issue go. The subject has consumed her. She will speak of nothing else. She has even gone so far as to call her sister in Cheyenne (who is in a care facility herself and in no way able to help Mom at all) and ramble on and on about the problem at length. It was not a conversation, according to her sister, it was just Mom talking about the same thing over and over and over again: They weren’t happy. We needed to make it right. (Just who “they” were and what needed to be made right was never articulated.)

On my husband’s last visit (I wasn’t able to go), he came home a bit shaken. For the first 20 minutes of the visit, he reported, she listed to one side in her recliner (like Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, according to my husband) and refused to say anything to my husband. He would ask her questions or try to get a response from her and all she would do was stare back at him in a not-very-friendly way. At about the 20-minute mark she decided to talk again, but started in on the “they aren’t happy with the arrangment” thing again and would not allow herself to be shifted off of it. I think he lasted 40 minutes total before he got in the car and came home.

This past week my husband came down with both a viral infection (cough, congestion, fever) and thrush, and at the doctor’s office on Monday he inquired on if it would be all right to visit his mom. No, the doctor said. Most people in health care facilities were usually immune system compromised to begin with; he didn’t think it would be a good idea for my husband to take a chance infecting Mom or any of the other people in the facility, even if it had been several days since he’d experienced really bad symptoms.

I hate to say this, but when we heard the doctor’s words we both gave a mental high five to ourselves. YES! We had a legitimate reason not to visit Mom. It wasn’t because we were being neglectful or mean or wanted to do something more fun; we were avoiding her to prevent her from getting sick. It felt like being in grade school and getting a snow day. Reprieve! Later we both felt a little bit ashamed of ourselves for feeling so joyous. I mean, we’re not supposed to feel happy about NOT getting to visit a parent, are we? Still, that’s the primary emotion that emerged: happiness that we were being spared yet another awful visit.

We assume that by Sunday my husband will be well enough that we can visit Mom. We aren’t looking forward to it–we haven’t looked forward to these visits in a long time–but that’s what family does, right?

Your friend,

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My brother-in-law, Mom’s oldest son, came to visit two weeks ago. He spent about an hour and a half with Mom at Grace Pointe. We aren’t sure she knew who he was, although at one point, in a very eloquent gesture of love and trust, she leaned her whole body against him for a little while.

I don’t share photos very often, but this photo, taken by my sister-in-law, made me cry when I saw it. As you can see, Mom is in the middle, guided down the hallway by her two sons, both of them watching her solicitously as she slowly trundles along, almost like a big toddler now, mentally and physically. Once she held their hands and guided them along; now they are the ones who do the guiding and leading. Once she was a big person; now she is little and frail, an elderly little bird tipped out of her nest, unsure of where to settle next.

How things have changed.

Your friend,

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The Worst Visit Ever

We went to see Mom on Saturday and it was quite possibly the worst visit we have ever had.

She did not recognize us when we came into the building. When we said hello, she responded, but there wasn’t a glimmer of recognition in her eyes, nor was there any joy in her greeting. It was more of a polite “hello, strange person I don’t know” kind of response.

We walked her to her room and gave her her milkshake, but the visit quickly unraveled after that. She was obviously having a hard time understanding us, so I checked her ears and discovered that both her hearing aids were missing. On a good day, even with her hearing aids in, Mom has a hard time making sense of conversations. Without them, we were struggling to communicate even the simplest of thoughts. Unfortunately, we’d arrived just as a new shift of aides came on duty, so no one knew if she’d had them earlier or if they were missing. A quick look through Mom’s night stand and drawers in the bathroom yielded nothing, so we soldiered on as best we could. But it was not fun.

Conversations went like this: My husband: Mom, are you enjoying your shake? Mom: Angel tacks? My husband, pointing to her cup: No! Are you enjoying your shake? Mom: Death day?

Then things got even worse. Mom asked if they were happy with the current arrangment. We had no idea who “they” were or what arrangement she was talking about. Or if it was even real. “I think they’re happy,” my husband said. “What?” she asked. “I think everybody’s happy. Everything’s fine,” he bellowed. Instead of appeasing her, this just made her angry. She stared/glared at him, not pleased with the response. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I think so,” he said, trying to answer an unanswerable question with sort of a benign, non-answer response. “Well, that’s not what I heard,” she said. “Oh?” She frowned some more. “Are you sure that they’re happy?” she asked again. “Yes, I think everything’s fine.” This went on and on in and endless loop for at least 40 long minutes. It was obvious Mom was not happy with us and thought we had mishandled something, only we had no idea what. For all we knew, she’d dreamed or hallucinated a scenario that was all make-believe. The one time she seemed like she was going to explain herself, the sentence went like this: “Do you really think they’re happy with the coomfarnonput?” Not knowing what a coomfarnonput is or was, we were clueless how to accurately respond. And soothing platitudes weren’t cutting it with her. At one point she asked my husband, in a not-very-kind voice, “Well, why are you just standing there instead of taking care of it?” The whole episode was exhausting. We left before an hour had elapsed, practically sprinting as we left the building, so glad were we to leave Mom and her anger behind.

The one bright spot in the whole visit came not from Mom but from another female resident who kept coming into Mom’s room while we were talking. Mom had only drunk a third of her shake and didn’t want the rest, so to prevent it from being poked into a drawer or closet or poured into a shoe, we took it with us. The woman was in the hallway, watching us as we departed, and spied the nearly-full shake cup in my husband’s hand. “I’d like to have one of those,” she said to him. “Oh. Well, here you go,” he said, handing it to her. Her joy was off the charts.

We felt sort of rattled after our visit. Hopefully the next time we see Mom she will have her hearing aids in. Hopefully next time she’ll be in a better mood.

Your coomfarnonput-less friend,

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‘Cause ya gotta have friends

A couple of years ago, I was doing research on the Bataan Death March in preparation for writing a short story. One of the survivors, interviewed years later, attributed his survival to the fact that he had a good friend in the internment camp where the men were held. He watched his friend’s back and his friend watched his. If one got sick, the other took care of him, and vice versa. He noted that anyone who was a loner didn’t last very long.

Mom has always had a lot of friends, but we noticed once she moved into assisted living that her facility for making friends seemed to disappear. We aren’t sure why. It’s possible that some of the people didn’t tolerate her well because her Alzheimer’s made her do goofy things, like barge into their rooms uninvited. Or possibly no one wanted to be her friend because she refused to participate in most of the activities. Or possibly the pulling away came from her end because she began having a hard time remembering names and found her memory lapses embarrassing. For whatever reason, she spent most of her time in her room, alone, moving her possessions from one side of the room to the other.

She continued to be a loner at Grace Pointe. While there were a couple people that she took great pains to avoid (because they’d yelled at her to stay out of their rooms), there wasn’t anyone she particularly took a shine to. Then Fern moved in. She’s a tall, skinny, gray-haired woman who reminds me of a great blue heron. Fern loves to dress up. Fern loves to talk. And Fern loves Mom. They hang out together, eating at the same table at mealtimes and kind of orbiting each other the rest of the time, very frequently carrying on two very different conversations at the same time. According to the staff, if Mom’s not around, Fern gets concerned and asks where she is.

The other day, Mom was having a difficult time saying goodbye as we were leaving, and Fern swooped in and put her arm around Mom’s shoulders. “I love her and we’re good friends,” she told us, “Even though she doesn’t know it some times.” She stayed there with her arm around Mom as we went out the door and waved goodbye, lending comfort in her own unique Fern way.

We feel fortunate that Mom has a friend like Fern. We are happy that she has someone in her life who cares about her and wants to be around her. Otherwise, it would be very lonely for her.

Thanking God daily for Fern,
Your friend,

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Visiting Hour

We went to see Mom yesterday. When we arrived at Grace Pointe, we found her sitting in a circle with some of the other residents, playing balloon badminton. Well, everyone else was playing balloon badminton. Mom mainly sat there staring at the floor, and the few times the balloon came close to her, she barely swiped at it. Since she very rarely participates in group activities, however, we did not interrupt her. Instead, we kind of hung back and waited until it was over.

Mom seemed happy to see us, which made us glad. On our previous visit it was obvious she did not know who we were or why we persisted in hanging around in her room making pointless conversation. A tiny spark of recognition came into her eyes when my husband mentioned that his older brother was coming for a visit, naming him by name, but that spark soon disappeared.

After the balloon badminton broke up we walked Mom down to her room so she could eat her milkshake in peace, but right before we reached her room, we saw another resident dart in. When we entered Mom’s room, we found the woman curled up on the bed with the covers over her mid-section. Mom didn’t appear to notice anything amiss, so we didn’t say anything, simply changed course and said, Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to sit on the patio for a change?

We hadn’t been sitting there very long when it dawned on me that Mom didn’t seem to be understanding us very well. On a good day she maybe understands about 50 percent of what we say if we keep our sentences short and speak loudly. This time, however, she understood almost nothing. The conversation went like this: My husband: “Mom, do you like your shake?” Mom (looking distressed): “They’re going to kick me out?” My husband (much louder this time): “No! Do you like your shake?” Mom: “We’re leaving because of the rain?” Finally I checked her ears and noticed that she wasn’t wearing either of her hearing aids. “I’ll go to her room and see if I can find them,” my husband said. While he was gone, Mom never, ever looked at me or acted like I was there. Instead, she kept up her end of an imaginary conversation, looking off to her right at what I can only assume was an hallucination.

“Yes, I think I’d like one of those,” she said in a loud, braying tone she’s acquired this year. She waited a couple of beats. “Do you have enough to go around?” Another pause. “Well, I suppose that would work.”

My husband came back. No hearing aids. And the woman we’d seen in Mom’s bed was still there, sound asleep. So we muddled along as best we could. A couple times Mom complained about someone not letting her cook eggs, and once she said, out of the blue, “I’m not going to sell my oil shares.” (She doesn’t HAVE any oil shares.) Mainly we just sat there and watched her suck down her milkshake. There were other residents on the patio at the time. I counted at least four new people I hadn’t seen before, which meant that at least four old residents had passed away or moved to a new facility. One woman that we hadn’t seen in a long time came outside pushing her walked. We were stunned by how much she’d changed in that time. To quote my husband, she “looked rough.”

After a very long hour had elapsed, we finally said we were going to go. Mom took this pretty well, although at the last minute she thought she’d follow us out the door, so an aide had to take her by the hand and distract her. When we got back to the car, my husband sighed and asked, “Do you think we’re doing any good visiting her? She never remembers our visits, and now she doesn’t know who we are.” Maybe she doesn’t appreciate our visits. Maybe she couldn’t care less if we visited her or if we stayed home. But WE would know if we weren’t visiting her and we would feel guilty. So the visits will continue.

Yours, straining for conversation,

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For years now, ever since Mom (my mother-in-law) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my own mother has been considered the “good” mom, the “easy” mom because she has required very little from us in the way of care. She’s in her late 80s and lives in northern Wyoming. She still drives her own car, takes care of her own finances, cleans her own house, and stays busy with gardening, sewing, reading, and going to the rec center to swim. By comparison to my mother-in-law, she’s doing great. Lately, however, I’ve noticed just a bit of “slippage” mentally–she’s not quite as sharp as she once was, needs things explained quite carefully and repeatedly, and she seems to be a bit more muddled than normal.

This past weekend Mom came to visit for a couple days before the wedding of her grandson, Sam, on Saturday. One of the first things out of her mouth when she arrived was: “I had the most harrowing experience this morning!” Now, I kind of mentally rolled my eyes at this because Mom’s sense of hyperbole is always a little dramatic–it’s not just hot, it’s stifling; someone’s not just nutty, they’re depraved. So how harrowing could her morning have really been? She then went on to relay that she’d gotten an early morning telephone call from my nephew, Sam. After saying “Hi, Grandma,” he said he was calling from Las Vegas; he’d gone out there to see a buddy who really needed some help and in the course of driving in Vegas, he had become involved in a bad car accident. He was to blame. Not only that, the injured party in the other car was a young woman who was seven months’ pregnant. Oh, and he had been drinking, so he was in jail and had found a lawyer to assist him, but the lawyer needed $2,500 to get him out of jail and to start taking care of things. Sam then put the lawyer on the phone, but not before he asked Grandma to keep this confidential and to not tell his dad what he was asking.

“What did you do?” I asked with dread in my heart.

“Well, I was so rattled, I didn’t know what to do at first,” she said. “He was talking so fast and I was trying to write down everything the lawyer said. Finally, I called your brother and told him I couldn’t leave until after 9 a.m. because I had to go to the bank when it opened. But I didn’t tell him why I needed to go the bank, because I’d promised Sam I wouldn’t tell anyone. But before I left for the bank, I decided I needed to pray about the situation, and then I thought maybe I’d call Pastor and tell him about it and maybe get some guidance on how to proceed.”

Long story short, her pastor recognized this call for the scam that it was and told her in no uncertain terms that she should absolutely NOT wire the money to the Dominican Republic as she had been instructed. Thank heavens.

“Isn’t that something?” she said when she was finished with her tale. Now here’s the scary thing: While Mom was kind of outraged/amazed that someone had tried to trick her, she didn’t seem terribly worried or upset that she had swallowed the story hook, line, and sinker, nor did she seem to think that she’d behaved imprudently or was any way partly to blame for nearly giving away $2,500 of her money. Did it not seem funny to her that Sam had taken off for Las Vegas only two days prior to his wedding day? Didn’t it seem peculiar to her that he would have called her for help in a crisis instead of calling, say, his twin brother or his sister or his dad or his fiancee? How could she think that he would actually ask her to keep this a secret when he and his father are extremely close and share everything? And how could she not see that wiring money to the Dominican Republic seemed kind of odd when my nephew was supposedly in Las Vegas? There were red flags popping up all over the place, and Mom didn’t see a single one.

“I’ve heard of this happening to other people before,” she said breezily, “but it never dawned on me that someone might try it with me.”

I tried to talk firmly to her about turning down anyone who asked for money over the phone, but I’m not sure that my words penetrated her brain. She was just too wound up about the drama of it all to really listen.

So now my mom, the “good” mom, the one who could take care of herself, has suddenly been given a much higher place on our list of worries. As I went on my morning walk today, I tried to think of ways to safeguard Mom. Could we move to her town to keep a better eye on her? No, because moving would mean we’d have to uproot my husband’s mom from Grace Pointe, which I think would be devastating for her. Could I contact the bank and ask them to call me if Mom tries to wire money? Would there be some way to stop these calls from reaching her?

It makes me angry that some lazy, dishonest person out there is scamming little old ladies out of the few dollars they have, that they are targeting a very vulnerable, trusting segment of society. Mom dodged the bullet this time, thanks to her pastor’s wisdom, but will she be more careful the next time a con artist reaches her on the phone? Will she be more skeptical, less willing to believe the caller’s harrowing tale? I hope so. I pray so.

Your worrying friend,

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Styrofoam, Cinema Verite, and Great Expectations

I’ve written before at length (or perhaps ad nauseum) about the fact that Mom was a hoarder. Whenever I think about the bags full of paper trash we had to sort through when she moved into assisted living, I give an involuntary shudder (and can immediately summon the sweet/rotten smell of nasty paper to mind). Everything had value to Mom: years-old church bulletins, devotional booklets from 2002, old, empty cold cream jars, junk mail, years-old catalogs, even the broken cardboard tube “things” that fit over the bottom part of a wire clothes hangers. Every single paper sack, plastic bag, and fast-food container that came into her possession was steadfastly poked in cupboards, closets, and boxes. Some of this was fairly easy to dispose of: we hauled everything we possibly could to a recycling center that took glass, aluminum, cardboard, and paper products. However, we were still stuck with the Styrofoam. She’d acquired garbage sacks full of it, squirreled away mostly out of hoarding habit, not future need, and it wasn’t the little packing peanuts, which could be given to a shipping facility. Mom’s Styrofoam came in big, blocky chunks, the kind that fit around new TVs and electronics. (Which, oddly enough, she did not purchase while she lived in her apartment. How she acquired the chunks, I do not know.) Our local curbside recycling wouldn’t take the Styrofoam; in fact, there were no recycling facilities in our county that would take it. We didn’t want to dump it in a landfill, so for the past two-plus years, it has languished in our garage. Finally, I heard about a recycling facility in Boulder that accepts hard-to-recycle materials. We’re talking electronics, cooking oil, bubble wrap, and yes, block Styrofoam. It would cost us to leave the Styrofoam there, but we figured the cost would be worth it. So last week we loaded our car to the ceiling with Styrofoam and drove to Boulder, where for the princely sum of $3, they took it off our hands. What amazed us the most about this is how much more space we have in our garage now. We can actually get into places that heretofore were stacked high with Styrofoam. It is such a relief to have one more massive piece of Mom’s stuff gone.

Cinema Verite
We watched “St. Vincent” this past weekend and found it to be unexpectedly touching. (It is rated PG-13, however, and with good reason. It’s not exactly a Disney cartoon.) Anyway, Bill Murray’s character, Vincent, goes to a nursing home facility once a week to visit his wife. While it’s not stated explicitly, the viewer is led to believe that his wife has Alzheimer’s. Afterwards, we both agreed that the depiction was not faithful to the actual disease at all–or at least the version of the disease we’re witnessing. First of all, Vincent’s wife looked immaculate every single time he visited her–her hair was stylishly done, she wore beautiful clothes, she wore tasteful, matching accessories. (And if one were judging by appearances, one might think Vincent had the Alzheimer’s, not his wife. He was a wreck.) Secondly, her sole impairment seemed to be the inability to remember Vincent’s name or who he was to her. (Yes, it was sad, but it didn’t track with the rest of her behaviors. Typical Alzheimer’s patients lose a lot more than the ability to remember a family member’s name.) And thirdly, her command of the English language was impeccable. She spoke in full, multiple-clause sentences, with nary a vocabulary misstep. She could express herself beautifully, without a struggle.

How it is in the real, non-movie world: Most of the time Mom still knows who we are. That ability has stuck around much longer than some of her other life skills, like getting dressed or knowing how to use the phone. We know from experience that Mom lost the ability to dress herself early-on and would put all kinds of bizarre outfits together. (Think dresses over pants with five pairs of underwear.) Accessorizing her outfits is the furthest thing from her mind these days. (And most of the time, unlike the woman in the film, her clothing is covered in dribbles of food.) And finally, the inability to find a word was one of the first signs that Mom had Alzheimer’s. It was her frustration with her memory gaps that forced her to go see her doctor; it was he who first mentioned the word Alzheimer’s.

Does Alzheimer’s affect every single person the exact same way? Honestly, no. But the depiction in the movie was much too clean, much too sanitized, much removed from reality.

Great Expectations
I ran into one of Mom’s church acquaintances the other day. After saying hello, this acquaintance asked how Mom was doing. When I told her Mom was in a progressive decline, her reaction was one of woeful surprise. Which I find to be a curious, yet typical, response. Any number of people have responded in the same way, like they were expecting me to say, “Oh, she’s getting much better.” Then when they found out differently, they were visibly disappointed. Even her sister expresses dismay when she hears that Mom isn’t doing well, and she’s been told multiple times, in a number of different (strongly-worded) ways, by a myriad number of family members, that not only will Mom not get better, she will continue to get worse. And maybe even we ourselves are dismayed and surprised whenever Mom displays newer, diminished behaviors. Even though our heads know that Mom has Alzheimer’s and even though we’ve read extensively about what to expect, in our heart of hearts, we keep hoping for a different outcome.

Your friend,

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