by Carolyn Lukert, MBA, CGCM,
PAC Consultant and Mentor
Dear PAC Consultant,
My mom has dementia and lives in a locked memory care community within a Continuing Care Retirement Community. It has taken her a year to acclimate, but it finally seems like she is comfortable there. My dad (her husband of 63 years) lives close by in an independent living apartment and takes her to dinner every night to a restaurant on campus. When he brings her back, he simply says he has a flight to catch, and she accepts this.
Recently, he got sick and has been unable to visit. The impact on her has been devastating. She has stopped eating and doesn’t want to participate in anything. It almost seems as though she has lost the will to live. I am far away (west coast, she is east coast) and I talk with her on the phone daily. I have tried to explain why he isn’t visiting right now, and she just isn’t grasping it. What can I do to help her?
Sad in Seattle
Dear Sad in Seattle,
I am so sorry to hear about your mom’s reaction to your dad’s absence. It sounds like he is an important part of her life, and not surprisingly, after 63 years of marriage. That’s a really long time to be with someone, and then to suddenly not be. And, how hard it must be for you to witness this from a distance.
You mentioned you tried to explain your dad’s absence to your mom, and she isn’t getting it. I am wondering, does she understand it in the moment you tell her, and then not hold onto it? Or, is she not comprehending it at all? Does she express fear about his condition, anger over him not being there because she feels ignored by him, or does she appear to be withdrawing perhaps as a result of grief? Or, something else? I know, many questions to consider.
At PAC, we often use the phrase substitution, not subtraction, and this can apply to many situations. If, for example, your mom is feeling ignored, then find ways to replace the attention she typically gets from your dad with other means - cards, phone calls, or FaceTime for example. Whatever would make sense to her and would align with her capabilities. Alternatively, perhaps substituting attention from someone else (other family members/friends) may help. I know this becomes more difficult if there are visitation restrictions, as with COVID-19 for example, so it might even be staff or paid professionals that provide that substitution.
If it’s fear, what has helped your mom in fearful situations in the past? What helps to soothe or reassure her? Could it be music, phone calls/visits from other family members, connecting with neighbors? As you think about your mom’s preferences and habits from the past, what might make sense to try?
If your mom feels like she doesn’t want to go on living without your dad’s daily presence, that can spiral into the danger zone rather quickly in the absence of intervention. So, think about how to connect with her in a way that she has the best chance of responding. Might a personal visit from you or others that she trusts be worthy of consideration at this point? If this is not possible, does technology provide an option? Or, is there a staff member that does particularly well with her? Providing reassurance, comfort, and love at a time when your mom feels that there is no reason to go on may be the key to helping her through this very difficult time.
As always, we are here to explore customized strategies with you, so please do not hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org should you wish to connect with us. We are here to help.