Long Distance Caring and COVID-19

Mother-daughter bonds are often described as a connection like no other.  This is especially true for my mom (Terri Mitchell) and me.  I am an only child who was raised in a, now rare, two-parent household.  My dad (Brad Mitchell) often worked long overtime hours to help support our small family and to ensure we never went without.  My father’s long hours at work naturally provided more quality time between my mom and me, and this helped further develop and strengthen our bond.  Like it may happen with many younger mothers, mom and I have been compared more often as sisters.  I have also at times been asked if I was more the parent than she was.  While growing up, little did I know that this may have been a premonition of what was to come. 

My relationship with my mother continued to strengthen as I graduated high school, college, and then through a move to Texas, far away from all my friends and family to complete a graduate degree.  To my surprise, my parents’ social lives seemingly flourished after I moved away (insert the shock and awe of an only child here).  But the distance over the past 20 years has in no way hindered our relationship and probably further encouraged increased communication via calls, texts, now FaceTime, and visits back and forth for special occasions…or just because we miss each other.  Approximately around 2014, after my dad had already been retired for several years, my parents bought a house in the next town.  The goal was for mom to commute while she continued to work two more years until her own retirement.  Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, we were notified that she was making mistakes in her job on tasks that she could have done with her eyes closed after so many years at the same company in the same job–such as forgetting how to make copies on the printer, make coffee, etc.  Unfortunately, it took nearly two years to find the correct diagnosis: Dementia!  She was too young—only 58!  She had already lost her job and began going to multiple doctor appointments, testing, and getting evaluations to try to rule things out and narrow it down to something that is meant for “old people.”  My grandparents were nearing their 80s at that time, and they were in better mental health than their youngest daughter. 

I am a social worker in the medical field and have a baseline understanding and experience with Dementia and Alzheimer’s.  But this is my mom.  My best friend in the world.  She was only 58 years old.  I have not been blessed with children, and even with medical experience, irrationally questioned whether these lacking extended familial connections, support, and incentive to help her “stay young” had impacted the potential progression of this ugly disease.  It made me question everything.  What could we have done differently?  Could we have helped her do anything differently?  Could we have prevented or changed this in any way? 

As things progressed with mom, my dad stepped up and stepped into the role of caregiver.  He graciously credits both the education and emotional support provided by the Alzheimer’s Association throughout this unexpected journey.  My parents have been together since Junior High School. October 2020 marks their 45th wedding anniversary.  It does not take a medical study to prove men are not normally caregivers by nature, but my dad did it.  He did it for about six years—becoming more of a parent, caretaker, and babysitter than a husband.  He did it with minimal assistance from me or anyone else.  As an only child, and female child…I struggled for years with the fact that I could not be there on a regular daily basis to help care for my parents who sacrificed so much for me and our little family.  For years, we discussed them moving closer to me to be in San Antonio, Texas, a sprawling metropolis with more resources at hand than their small rural town in Litchfield, Illinois.  But they were born and raised in Carlinville.  It is what they know.  It is where everyone they know is. 

Caregiving takes a toll that no one other than other caregivers can understand.  Even maintaining daily contact (sometimes talking even several times per day) with my mom and dad is just not the same as being there–providing extra relief, supervision, and support.  Mom was finally admitted into a memory care facility this Valentine’s Day.  Call it women’s intuition, but I knew dad was at a breaking point and I could hear the fear in his voice.  I flew home immediately.  There is something about that mother-daughter bond that provides a sense of comfort and love without requiring words.  Just each other’s presence is enough.  Dad and I worked with mom to help her pick out new furniture and decorations for her “new apartment,” which is luckily only one mile from their house.  The facility kindly let me sleep with her those first few nights to help her adjust with me there, slumber party style.  Only it wasn’t the fun kind of slumber party that both starts and ends on a good note.  I flew back home devastated because this is what it had come to but I knew and understood that neither dad nor I could safely care for her at home without constant help or support.  What loving child can put a parent “away?!?”  But I was reassured by the fact that dad is practically next door, and he has not wavered in his constant devotion and caregiving for mom.  I also knew that mom has always been a friendly, fun loving, outgoing presence in any room, so she is loved by so many–I knew she would continue to have visitors and ongoing support from friends and extended family. 

But this is 2020.  Barely one month later, the COVID-19 lockdown hit as the pandemic spread.  As I write this, it has been 8 months since mom was admitted into the memory care facility.  Any other year, I would have flown home several times to visit.  Now, Thanksgiving is canceled and probably Christmas, as she will not be allowed in/out until there is a vaccine.  Mom forgets things, such as how to turn on her TV, change the channel, charge her cell phone, how to shower, what clothes to wear…but I am very grateful she still has the ability at this time to call and FaceTime (with some assistance).  But to get those calls any hour of the day or night of her crying, feeling alone and trapped are unbearable.  I want to fly home, walk her out, and bring her home with me to live happily ever after.  But this disease will not allow it.  There is no fairy tale ending with this disease.  But all challenges aside, my family and I discuss our blessings constantly.  At this time, we are lucky to be able to have her at Copper Creek Cottages in Litchfield, where they provide specialized memory care for those with Alzheimer’s & Dementia.  But even in good hands, we don’t have my mom.  “They are wasting our time!” My mom said this about us losing time together because of the COVID-19 increase.  Even she realizes how vital it is for people to wear a mask, wash their hands, and social distance. She doesn’t understand why it is so hard for so many to do such simple things.

She is my best friend on earth and I am literally being robbed of the precious, limited time I have with her.  This is not just time we will not get back, but it is time that we are missing of her…with her…her personality, her memories she has, making new memories (for us!), etc.  I miss my mom.  For now, we will continue to talk on the phone at every possible opportunity, see each other on FaceTime (because it is better than nothing), and hopefully (praying as I type this) we will not only be able to simply see each other again in person—but be able to hug, go shopping, spend time with our family, or even just sit and watch TV together.  Time with my mom is time with my mom.  So, I will continue grasping onto whatever I can as long as I can.  And God bless my dad, extended family, her caregivers, and all our guardian angels (her parents included).

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