My parents were married for 71 years. Over the past several years Dad experienced declining memory and mom declined physically. She helped him remember things (or remembered them for him), and Dad — even in his 90s he was still agile and quite strong — helped her move around, fetching things as needed so she did not need to get up.
Together they managed, pooling their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses, though in the last three years they needed the support that an assisted living community offered them — especially meals and medication assistance. Moreover, as staff kept a discrete eye out — my parents had their own small apartment and could still move around their familiar retirement community, especially visiting the library and the cafe whenever they wished.
Everyone thought Dad would pass away first, but that did not happen. Mom died just over three months ago, but once she passed, my father had no idea how weak his memory actually was. Mom took such amazing care of my dad when it came to remembering things that he had no idea just how much he did not remember. Maybe it was a blessing that she made him feel complete and whole at a time when many people suffer frustration and anger about memory loss.
Yet, even I, their adult child, did not know how truly weak Dad’s memory was until my mother died.
Yet as soon as the funeral home picked up mom’s body and drove away, after we sang some of her favorite hymns, read from the Psalms, and said prayers, Dad turned to us and asked, “Who died?”
And that’s the way it has been for over three months. We need to tell him several times a day, more often in the evening, what happened, where her ashes are, and that, yes, we were able to have a small religious service (with masks and social distancing) to bless her ashes. We never correct his forgetfulness. Each time he nods, becomes a bit tearful, and then goes on with whatever he is doing. The following day we do it all again.
I’ve made him a memory book, a scrapbook filled with information about Mom’s passing, a description of what happened during the last 10 days of her life — and how much he supported her — along with pictures of the family, and a compilation of all the wonderful remembrance comments that people made on Facebook or mailed to us. Sometimes that helps but not always.
I worry a good deal about my dad. Leaving CoVid-19 out of the equation (few cases in his retirement community), he is lonely without always knowing why. I worry that telling him that Mom has died several times a day must be a shock of some kind to his system. He remembers me, my husband, his granddaughter, and her husband, but is a bit shaky when it comes to his two great-grandchildren. He knows how to push the button on the phone to call us — which he does many times each day, because he is lonely and does not remember making previous calls.
At age 97 Dad is surprisingly stable, comfortable, and he still spends a good deal of time rereading his religion and philosophy books. He always makes an effort to tell us he is doing just fine. But loneliness, complicated by protective CoVid-19 era quarantine activity policies, is the big challenge, and without my mom — after 71 years together — it’s clear he is mightily confused. I, on the other hand, mourn for the loss of my mom and also for my dad’s inability to truly do so.