July 4th. The day Americans celebrate Independence Day. My mother was born July 2, 1930. She passed away in September of 2020 at the age of 90.
Miss Nellie was quite ill during her final chapters. In fact, her last nine months were spent in a care facility. (As much as I wanted to have her remain with me in our Northern California home, her care needs were simply too great.) Needless to say there were no grand 4th of July celebrations during 2020.
This is the first year I did not spend July 2 hosting some kind of birthday party or travel excursion for my mother.
And it got me thinking about independence, about freedom and what no longer having either might mean for our elders? Especially those who sense their overall health is declining and who know they will soon no longer be 100% independent.
Think about it: the reality is, something as simple as enjoying an evening out for fireworks can be a frightening and dangerous proposition and then that activity simply becomes a memory of something ‘I used to do.’
I want to share with you one of the most memorable 4th of July and birthday celebrations I had with my mother. It was the summer of 2008. I had planned a long weekend in New York City offering Miss Nellie a whirlwind adventure of sightseeing, dining and Broadway shows.
At the time we lived in South Florida and we had plenty of access to an amazing selection of Broadway shows; many which Miss Nellie enjoyed attending. BUT - she had yet to experience Broadway … Manhattan style!
The trip was grand and I did all I could to spoil my mother. We stayed in Times Square at an elegant hotel. We had tickets to not one - but TWO Broadway shows.
Our first night in the Big Apple I remember helping mom get dressed. It was a special night out on the town and she insisted on wearing a dress and sandals (She usually wore comfortable tennis shoes).
I remember she was having problems raising her arms above her head to slide into her dress. She was stiff and rigid. And I recall how quickly she began having difficulty walking once we left the hotel.
It was not long before her feet began hurting and her gait seemed off; she was a bit slower and her walk clumsy. I had to remind her to pick up her feet and not shuffle.
At the time I did not think much of it. After all she was 77 going on 78. I chalked it up to simply old age.
Our first outing was to see Mama Mia. What an incredible production! The colors, the singing, the dancing … WOW!
I’m pretty sure Miss Nellie enjoyed every moment, or so it seemed from the large smile on her face. It was a treat to see that.
The next day we took in some sight-seeing; the double decker tour bus to explore Uptown, stopping by The Empire State Building, traveling to see the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a full trip for an elderly woman. I see that now.
Throughout the weekend, I remember that our pace was slower; mom tired easily and it was hard for her to walk.
Navigating the subway was tricky due to the up and down of climbing stairs. Mom hung on tightly and cautiously to the railings and we both took our time (as much as one can when people all around you are moving at the speed of light).
I made sure to hold Miss Nellie’s hand and elbow tightly when it was time to board or get off the train. At first she angrily pulled away from my grip, as if to say, ‘I can do this myself!’ But that indignation quickly turned to resignation, admitting she was a little afraid and accepting that she needed help to prevent a potential trip or fall.
Despite these signs, I still did not think much of Miss Nellie’s new limitations. I knew my mother was getting older but in my mind, she was nowhere near OLD. And ... I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Night number two found us in the Theatre District once again to see Wicked. And again we witnessed an incredible production. (I for one was mesmerized by this explanation of how the Wizard of Oz came to be, but I digress.)
We filled the next day with more sightseeing and then prepared to watch fireworks along the river. And this is the moment when I realized my mother was not just getting older, but that we both would now have to be on the lookout for decline.
It was perhaps one of the strangest ‘A-ha’ moments. It was as if a small voice whispered, ‘You are going to have to care for your mother.’
Walking towards the waters edge to find our spot to view fireworks, mom became increasingly anxious. Her balance was off. She indicated she could not see well. Despite me holding her tight and close, I could tell she was clearly afraid. Of what, she could not verbalize. She was simply AFRAID.
The throngs of people, the dimly lit streets and uneven sidewalks didn’t help matters.
We ended up stopping blocks from our intended destination, found an outdoor cafe and did our best to see fireworks high in the sky from our current location. My mother kept apologizing, but really? How could I be upset? It was only fireworks and just imagine if we had continued and she had fallen?
That was the last 4th of July fireworks outing I can remember taking my mother to. Future events in South Florida were from the safety and comfort of a high-rise balcony overlooking the water. We no longer ventured into the midst of crowds - at night - outdoors - in the elements. As she aged, everything became more difficult. I talk in more detail about that in my blog.
July, 2008. The memories are bittersweet. In fact, while sifting through my photo albums to find these pictures, I started crying. Not so much because my mother is no longer with me (I process the loss in my own way and more on that in future posts) but rather for when I realize, ‘If only I knew then…’
What if I had already been aware that those changes in my mother may have indicated some cognitive decline impacting her senses?
Various forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease can appear in other symptoms which present in subtle changes to your loved one.
Early in the game, I could have requested her doctors run tests. I encourage all of you to educate yourselves NOW and then begin to pay close attention to the signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.
What if I had already known that Parkinson’s disease can creep up on someone and begin causing deterioration of motor skills?
The off-balance gait and inability to calculate when to step in time to getting on and off a train may have been EARLY indications something was amiss.
What if I had already been made aware that vision and comprehension of what one is seeing can be impacted by forms of dementia? An eye doctor can run all the test they wish and say your vision is fine… but the cognitive aspect of what your brain is processing may be in decline.
What if I had already known to be on the lookout for moments of anxiousness and fear that can take hold, even while doing a task you’ve done your entire life?
There are so many moments now - in retrospect - I wish I had known more about in order to help my mother. Granted, nothing can stop the march of time and eventually all of us will pass.
But as I like to say, knowledge is power. The more information we all have about what happens to our bodies during the aging process and what to be on the look-out for, the more prepared we can be for whatever situations may arise.
I'd love to hear from you. Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and leave a comment. I would imagine there are many of you who are saying the same thing ... 'If only.’
What was your ‘A-ha’ moment in which you realized your elder was changing in some way and how did you respond? How did you navigate these moments? I believe by sharing our stories we can help others. Let's get this conversation going, shall we?
And on a lighter note, take pictures. Plenty of pictures of your elders and loved ones. You’ll be glad you did…