The COVID-19 pandemic has left thousands of Americans motherless this year. One model shared in a study published in JAMA Pediatrics suggested the number of children who lost a parent due to the pandemic could be as high as 40,000, a staggering amount in just a year’s time span. On the other end of the spectrum, adult children grieve their elder mothers who died during the pandemic, some who must grapple with the extra pain of not being able to properly say goodbye.
Having lost both of my parents, I do find that Mother’s Day is harder for me emotionally than Father’s Day. I believe this is because my mother died in the month of May, just a couple of weeks after the holiday. My last memories of her before she became bedridden was reading her Mother’s Day card and admiring the fresh flowers I bought for her. Even though this year will mark six years since her passing, those bittersweet memories are still the first to surface when I’m reminded of Mother’s Day via the endless online ads and TV commercials.
For those whose mothers are still alive and perhaps will be seeing in-person for the first time in months due to the pandemic restrictions, I am so thrilled for you and I hope you have a wonderful reunion. We know now more than ever that each moment with loved ones is precious.
If you have a friend who may be grieving the loss of their mother, reach out and offer support in whatever way is meaningful to them. It can be a lonely holiday for those whose mothers are no longer alive, and acknowledgment from caring souls can mean so much.
May has arrived, and with it, a swirl of varied emotions. The world is beginning to open back up, which of course is a good thing. Now that I’m vaccinated against COVID-19, I’m also beginning to venture back out. There’s a strange mix of novelty in doing the most mundane of tasks, but humans are resilient and adaptable and a “new normal” will be established.
There is hope in the air, but May is also a month of loss for me. It will be six years since my mother died, and my beloved cat Nod crossed the Rainbow Bridge last May. Watching the Kentucky Derby yesterday made me think of my mother. Watching the race was the last happy moment we had together.
Many families are experiencing bittersweet reunions with their loved ones who have been isolated in nursing homes during the pandemic. Of course they are thrilled to visit their family members in person, and some can now hug and hold hands with their loved ones. But the toll the past year has taken cannot be denied. This moving New York Times photo essay captures the raw mix of emotions sparked during these long-awaited reunions.
Best wishes to those of you reuniting with your loved ones. If we’ve learned anything over this last year, it’s how precious those moments are and how we can never take them for granted again.
I had a strange experience this week that reminded me of one of my favorite stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias. This collection also includes a story I wrote about my father called “French Toast.” The story that I find so delightful is “The Bird,” about a woman with Alzheimer’s who is living with her adult daughter. One late night the mother wakes her daughter up and announces that there is a bird in the house. The daughter is skeptical, as most dementia caregivers would be, because hallucinations and other visual disturbances are not uncommon. But it turns out that the woman with dementia is correct and there is a real bird fluttering around the house!
I’ve been hearing strange noises coming from the house alarm system. It was intermittent, maybe every few months or so, but the noise sounded somewhat like chirps or squeaks. Sometimes I wondered if I was imagining things, and felt silly for thinking about a creature being inside the alarm system. When the pandemic struck, I had a hole on the roof where rats got in repaired. Even after the rats were gone, I still heard the occasional weird noise from the alarm system. The alarm system continued to work fine, so I didn’t consider it a priority to fix, especially during the pandemic lockdown.
This week the security system had to be upgraded because it was using old 3G technology that is being phased out. I was on the fence about mentioning the sounds to the technician, on account he might think I’d lost my mind. I was shutting the back door on his request and about to mention the sounds when he removed the alarm console cover. He announced, “You’ve got lizards!”
Mystery solved! I’m still not sure how they got in from the outside but they were likely attracted to the warmth of the circuit board. The one in the photo was the larger one and a smaller companion slithered out as well. I’d be happy to let them back outside but haven’t seen them since the ordeal. My cat will probably spot them before I do. On the rare occasion I’ve seen one in the house prior to this incident, the cats would surround it but thankfully were more curious than in hunter mode.
Other than an amusing story, what I’m taking away from this is the same moral from the Chicken Soup for the Soul story. The daughter said how enlightening it was to put herself in her mother’s shoes, and imagine how it would feel to not be believed. I wondered if I was imagining things as well, and there is a relief when one receives validation. To be less automatically dismissive is a good lesson for all of us, especially when interacting with those with dementia.
Today would have been Dad’s 89th birthday. This year will mark 10 years since his passing. It’s hard to believe that much time has gone by, and how much the world has changed in just a decade.
I’ve always loved this series of photo booth shots. I wasn’t an entirely cooperative model but Dad’s beaming smile makes up for it. Dad rarely smiled in photos as he was self-conscious about his teeth, so the wide smiles in these shots are extra precious. He was definitely a proud papa.
This week, I had to say goodbye to my rescue dog, Magee. I cared for him just shy of two years. They were challenging but rewarding years. He had been abandoned by his former owners at a boarding facility so his past was unknown, but he had health issues that were difficult to identify. We made great strides in securing a diagnosis (leishmaniasis) and just beginning treatment for this rare (in the U.S.) parasitic condition when out of the blue, cancer struck. A very aggressive tumor began growing on his eyelid, and in just weeks, was bulging across half his lower eye, bleeding and causing him great discomfort. It was confirmed to be melanoma. Removing the eye was an option, but melanoma, especially as aggressive as this was, typically comes back soon.
Putting a dog like Magee through major surgery and the required aftercare would not have been a good quality of life for him, as he had an anxiety behavior in which he would attack himself when he became stressed out. After his last vet visit, he experienced one of the worst episodes I’ve seen since I adopted him. This behavior continued over the ensuing days. (He had been on various medications to address his anxiety but none had worked well.) To put him through so much stress to buy a short amount of time before the cancer likely came raging back … it was an extremely difficult choice but I opted not to let his suffering continue.
I thought about my father, and how his dementia made him a poor candidate for recovery from surgery. He couldn’t understand that he needed to eat even if he wasn’t hungry to regain his strength and that he needed to follow the instructions of the physical therapist to get safely out of bed and walk. Instead he wasted away and became bedridden. My mother had a slow, grueling recovery from her cancer surgery, only to have it come back about a year and a half later. As caregivers know, rarely does a major procedure go off without a hitch. In my mother’s case the complications (blood clots) were life-threatening and required multiple medical interventions.
As I champion for people, quality of life is important for pets as well. It’s tricky because animals tend to be willing to put up with a lot more than people are, and our pets seem to focus on the happy moments. Dogs especially would live with us forever if they could. They trust us with all of their heart to make the right decision for them and we have to trust ourselves in the same way.
I never expected to have to say goodbye to two pets during this most difficult of years. Before Magee’s passing, I had began a new writing project, collecting the various things I’ve written about the pets I’ve had and my experience fostering dogs. Being a caregiver for animals can be just as intense as it is with humans, and I want to share my experience with those who also are grieving the loss of their beloved pets and agonizing over the medical care choices they made for them. What we see on social media, the smiling photos and the happy updates, are just one part of the story. Caring for a pet with health issues can be exhausting, frustrating, and depressing. It can also be rewarding and teach us valuable life lessons. If we could love ourselves the way our dogs love us, the world would be a better place.
It’s been a chilly winter for Atlanta (though no snow) and I’ve been hunkering down watching movies. In recent years, there has been an increase in movies about topics that I care about, including caregiving and dementia. Films about growing older that aren’t necessarily tied to illness and death are also being made. Whether you end up giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down to these movies, the mere fact they are being told and finding an audience is a positive sign. There continues to be issues with how older people, especially women, are portrayed in movies and there remains a need to explore growing old from the lens of people of color and other marginalized groups. Below is a list of movies I watched recently that deal with caregiving issues that I found intriguing.
Supernova: Starring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, this emotionally riveting drama centers around a same-sex couple grappling with dementia and end-of-life issues. I appreciated the focus on male caregiving, as it is often overlooked in our society but more men are becoming caregivers and their stories deserved to be told. The vulnerability that the actors showed in their roles was laudable.
Nomadland: Frances McDormand gives an award-worthy performance as an older woman named Fern who converts a van into a home and hits the road after her husband dies and the town she had lived and worked in suffers and economic collapse. The film offers an honest, unvarnished look at the life of modern nomads, who live out of vans or RVs. Many of these nomads are older, but continue to work at odd jobs to afford their life on wheels. While the road offers a good deal of freedom, health challenges, financial issues and loneliness are common issues. This is not a road trip adventure movie; it is about an older woman looking to learn who she is after her former life vanishes. Money is tight, the nights are cold and you take jobs wherever you can find them. The road can be unforgiving, but the friendships Fern forms along the way are authentic and offer important lessons.
Some Kind of Heaven: This documentary by Lance Oppenheim is a moving and intimate look at the less festive aspects of life in The Villages, the well-known retirement community in Florida. Those who have ample retirement funds and who are extroverts will likely thrive in the party-like atmosphere, but for those who find themselves alone, grappling with health issues or lacking money, The Villages is not such a fairy tale life. Oppenheim handled this subject matter with an impressive amount of compassion and insight for someone in their mid-twenties making their feature-length documentary debut.
I Care a Lot: This black comedy-thriller is polarizing audiences. Rosamund Pike plays a villain you love to hate but no one comes off as a hero in this film. Pike runs a company who provides guardianships to the elderly who are supposedly no longer able to care for themselves. The only problem is that her clients are all wealthy and not all are in need of guardians. The company is a scam to strip these people of their money while portraying itself as elder advocates in the eyes of the law. While the violent antics depicted the movie are over the top, there are documented cases of court-appointed guardians who do not serve their client’s best interest and who shut out family members who question such moves. Once courts become involved, it can be difficult for families to regain control of their loved one’s assets and care plan.
What are your favorite movies about caregiving? Let me know in the comments section.
The documentary focuses on the mysterious death of Canadian tourist Elisa Lam, who was found dead in a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in 2013. While authorities ruled the death an accidental drowning, there are many questions surrounding her death, amplified by the notorious reputation of the hotel. The four-part series covers many of the high-profile crimes that have taken place at the Cecil.
For those interested in the possible supernatural influence at the Cecil, I’m sharing my father’s terrifying experience. My father lived at the Cecil in 1965. He was a young, single immigrant from Northern Ireland who needed affordable accommodations near his workplace. He had been staying at the Cecil for some time with no unusual incidents to report until one night, he woke up to the sensation that someone was smothering him. He described it as a heavy pressure weighing down on his chest and throat, as if someone was sitting atop him. He gasped for breath and tried to fight back, but it felt like his entire body was paralyzed by an invisible but strong presence. Then as soon as it began, the feeling dissipated. My father ran downstairs to the night clerk, and explained what had happened. The clerk said, nonchalantly, that someone had been murdered in my dad’s room.
My dad changed rooms and did not experience anything unusual during the rest of his stay.
But the experience haunted my father for the rest of his life. Decades later, my father would be visibly shaken when retelling the story of what happened in that room at the Cecil Hotel. He would break out into a sweat, and his hands would shake. My mother would caution him to stop telling the story if it upset him so much, but Dad felt compelled to go on, even while clutching his heart.
My dad survived the Nazis bombing his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland as a child. He recounted having to run to the bomb shelter in the middle of the night with less fear than he told the story about that night at the Cecil Hotel.
The logical, rational side of me can dismiss my father’s experience at the Cecil as just a nightmare. He was prone to nightmares, very bad ones in which I remember him moaning and crying out in fear. But the thing about his nightmares is that they were always the classic “someone chasing me” scenario. Never did he have a nightmare that in any way resembled his experience at the Cecil.
There’s no way for me to know if my father had an encounter with an evil presence that haunts the Cecil Hotel or not, but I do know that whatever my father experienced, it felt very real to him.
When my father stayed at the Cecil, he likely wasn’t aware of its disturbing history. About a dozen suicides had been recorded at the hotel by the mid-1960s, including several women. Pauline Otten, 27, committed suicide in 1962 by jumping out of a window at the Cecil. In a tragic twist, she killed a pedestrian on impact. Just a year before my father’s stay, Goldie Osgood, a retiree known as “Pigeon Goldie” and the “Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square,” was raped and murdered in her room. The coroner said Osgood had been choked to death with a hand towel. The case was never solved, though an initial arrest was made. This Medium post offers a good overview of the deaths associated with the Cecil Hotel.
Unfortunately, the Cecil’s reputation only grew worse. In subsequent decades, it has been home to at least two serial killers, including the infamous Night Stalker. Lam’s mysterious death garnered worldwide interest and once again put the Cecil in the spotlight. The hotel tried to rebrand itself as Stay on Main for a few years and is undergoing yet another transformation but still attracts much attention from paranormal enthusiasts.
If you have interest in the history of the Cecil Hotel and the Elisa Lam case, I encourage you to watch this new documentary and let me know what you think. Many of you have reached out to me over the years to offer your own experiences when visiting the Cecil Hotel and I appreciate your comments.
I couldn’t help but think about my father this week as Joe Biden was inaugurated. Biden is an Irish-American Catholic who proudly recognizes his Irish ancestry, frequently quoting Irish poets and writers in speeches. I think my father would approve.
My father’s interest in politics began early. He was born into a devout Irish Catholic family in Belfast. Nazi air raids sent him and his family fleeing into bomb shelters in the middle of the night. His initial love of America was due in part to the U.S. military’s role during WWII. He closely followed the violent, deadly developments that took place between nationalists and unionists in his beloved Belfast and surrounding areas during the Troubles. By this time, he had already immigrated to America, which was a good thing, because he alluded on more than one occasion that he may have become directly involved in the unrest if he had remained in Northern Ireland.
As a child, what I remember most about my father’s political beliefs was his adoration of all things Kennedy. He loved to tell the story of how he met a young JFK in New York City. My father was a bellhop at the hotel Kennedy was staying at and he got to shake his hand. He also followed Robert F. Kennedy’s political rise closely and I believed he attended at least one rally in Los Angeles. My father lamented the Kennedy curse that cut short the political aspirations of the two brothers.
My father’s heritage directly influenced his political perspective. He had great disdain for Britain’s control and interference in Northern Ireland, and closely followed other countries who battled for independence from crown rule. His many letters to newspapers reflected a deep political interest in conflicts around the globe. In spite of political turmoil, my father remained devoted to all things Irish, beaming with pride when those of Irish descent were recognized for their talents. As my mother wrote in my father’s obituary, he loved his adopted country and homeland equally. He recognized that the good parts outweighed the challenges. It’s a poignant reminder for me right now, as America struggles through its own cultural and political strife.
It’s the ninth anniversary of my father’s death, and that also means it is time for my annual PSA (public service announcement) about being gentle and non-judgmental with those who choose not to celebrate the holiday season because they’ve lost someone during this time of year.
The coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 300,000 lives in America will put a damper on this year’s festivities. But I also noticed the opposite effect, with neighbors putting their Christmas decorations up well before Thanksgiving. Both are natural reactions and we should respect the way individuals choose to cope.
This year as I reflect upon the anniversary of my father’s death, I remembered a detail I came across in a card he had attempted to write one of his sisters, but no longer had the cognitive function to address and mail. He had written in the card that he had been diagnosed with the swine flu. He had not received such a diagnosis, but the H1N1 pandemic was in the news at the time. Dad had latched on to that to explain what was happening to his body. That memory came back strong this year as the coronavirus pandemic unleashed its fury across the world.
Related to the pandemic and the need to wear masks, I also am reflecting on the fact that Dad would likely have been anti-mask. In 1986, when I was 12, wearing seat belts became mandatory when driving a vehicle in California. I remember many heated arguments in the car because of my father’s stubborn refusal to put on his seat belt. He claimed wearing the belt was constricting and made him feel like he was choking. Sound familiar this year? As an ill-advised compromise, Dad would drape the belt over his torso, but not latch it. Fortunately we never had any serious accidents. According to the Los Angeles Times, my father was part of the majority who at the time did not wear seat belts on a regular basis.
It has been the strangest and most challenging of years and the holiday season is no different. Connect with those you love however you can safely. Offer words of comfort and healing to the many who are grieving.
Many may have mixed feelings about celebrating Halloween in such a difficult year that has been filled with so much real-life horror and death. For those who have lost a loved one, the sight of neighbors decorating their lawns with grave and skeleton decorations may seem insensitive. For those who have children or others in their lives who love celebrating the holiday, it may be important to maintain some semblance of normality.
I definitely feel both of these perspectives when I take the dog on neighborhood walks. Some decorations are quite elaborate and creative, and make me smile. Then I feel an inward cringe when I see the grave markers with RIP stamped on them. I can’t help but think of all of the lives lost this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Personally, I love Halloween and enjoy the spooky decorations more than Christmas ones. But I remember feeling a similar ambivalence about Halloween the year my mother died, though she died months before the holiday. I instead focused on the happy Halloween memories we had as a family.
I also had a critical reaction to seeing Christmas decorations being put up at the hospital where my dad lay dying in the ICU. When you are in a family health crisis mode, your perspective narrows. How dare all of these strangers celebrate the holiday when my dad is dying? Realizing the world doesn’t stop for you is a tough, but necessary lesson to learn.
Happy Halloween to those who do celebrate, and hope you receive all treats and no tricks. And if you are grieving and struggling with seeing Halloween decorations, I understand. I hope you can have a quiet night honoring your loved one’s memory.
A free treat for all: You can get both of my books, The Reluctant Caregiver and CBD for Caregivers, for free through this Halloween giveaway.