Crafted from fine cotton yarn, the black cardigan sweater became a staple in my spring wardrobe after my mother bought it for me 10 years ago. Rediscovering it in the back of my closet last week, I suddenly recalled a happier memory of Mom—a time when I wasn’t overwhelmed by what social workers describe as “caregiver burnout.” And then came an unexpected flood of tears.
It’s not like me to fall apart over a sweater while I’m reorganizing my closet for a new season. But then again, my mother hasn’t been herself for several seasons, either. Things began to unravel after my son left for college—just when my husband and I were starting to enjoy the freedom of our newly emptied nest.
First, we noticed Mom was showing up at family gatherings with burns and bruises she couldn’t explain. Then her friends would call to report that she’d forgotten to show up for club meetings and lunch dates. She’d drive herself to the ER during her panic attacks, which started occurring with alarming frequency. Not long afterward, her doctors told me to confiscate her car keys. Mom was 79 and had been widowed for 16 years when she was officially diagnosed with vascular dementia. She was also battling heart disease and severe hearing loss. As her only child, I was handed full responsibility of her medical care along with a checklist outlining her worrisome diagnosis.
At the time, Mom lived alone in a condo near my house. She refused to consider any type of senior housing, regardless of the fact that she’d been in and out of the hospital half a dozen times, and averaged 45 medical visits annually. But no matter how tactfully I approached the topic of assisted living—and offered to schedule tours of the best facilities—she’d look at me […]