My 86-year-old mom has a boyfriend. Oh, sure, lots of seniors have second- or third-life relationships — but maybe not when they live in assisted living and have Alzheimer's dementia and a 91-year-old boyfriend who has dementia, too.
Let's just say it makes for an interesting Sunday-afternoon visit.
At first, I balked at the situation, and the director of the facility and I had a few conversations about steering the two in different directions. My mom, an ambassador who welcomes others at her assisted living residence, had been assigned to greet him and show him the ropes.
When she tells the story of how they met [repeatedly], she says she looked at the information sheet describing the new resident and embarrassingly said, “Oh, it's a man."
He turned out to be a 91-year-old with dementia rivaling hers, and a stage-5-level clinger, as the millennials might call him. Needless to say, he has not left her side, and staff members note that he gets upset when he can't locate her.
For my mom's part, I know she was flattered, maybe a little lonely. The BFF she made when she first moved to assisted living, with whom she giggled like a schoolgirl, got promoted to the memory-care side of the facility not long after they became friends. Mom visits her there daily, now with the boyfriend in tow. But it isn't the same.
I run the fine line between making conversation — asking him questions about himself — and not pushing too hard, since he can't come up with many of the answers. Where's he from? How many siblings did he grow up with? Does he have grandchildren? The answers are guesses at best, spoken in halting speech. I nod, smile a lot and say things like, “That's OK,” when he can't produce an answer, and “That's great,” when he comes up with a sister's name or a funny childhood story.
This part is a lot like my mom.
One Sunday I came with pictures of her first great-grandchild, born a week before, and though she oohed and aahed at the photos and asked several times what his full name was and how old he was now, I got the feeling she hadn't really remembered. She just played along. She does that a lot now.
In fact, on the day her great-grandchild was scheduled to be born via planned C-section, I called her that morning to tell her that I was going to the hospital and would call her that afternoon with the details. She wrote herself a sticky note and left it on her table. In her effort to try to remember things, she writes notes, which are stacked on every flat surface and drawer in her apartment. The same way I found them at the end, when she lived in her own home. The written reminders no longer help.
Around 2 that afternoon I called the front desk of her assisted living facility. She came to the phone, and I told her all the details, including the baby's name and weight, and that everyone was well.
But at 9 that evening, my phone rang. Mom had read her sticky note and was wondering if there was news of the baby.
Not this, too, I thought to myself.
“Yes, I talked to you this afternoon. He was born at noon and weighed 8 pounds 8 ounces.”
But clearly nothing registered.
"Oh, I talked to you then? Oh, I can't believe I forgot that."
Me too, I thought.
But that's how it is now. I'm getting used to it. I'm trying to learn that the fewer the details, the better. I blew this one. I should have just called once. No need for notes, double calls, confusion. I can't share things the way I would have before the diagnosis.
I can't really make plans with my mom anymore, either — I just show up now. If I call at 9 to tell her I'll be there at 10, she forgets.
And now she and her male companion are a duo. Steering them in different directions didn't work. And visiting her means finding them in one of a number of places: on the porch, in one of their apartments, in the dining room, at the in-house movie theater. Having a private conversation is out, and asking her to go anywhere — shopping, lunch, for ice cream — brings the inevitable, “Can he come?"
When I told her I was taking her to visit the baby during the holidays, she asked if we could bring him along.
“No, we can't take him out of town,” I told Mom. “Plus, his family will come see him.” I'm thankful she is still reasonable.
"Oh, yeah, OK,” she said.
Her phone was blinking messages when I was there last. She doesn't seem concerned with checking it much anymore. If I need to reach her, I call early morning, before she heads out with her beau. They walk around the building on the path, eat every meal together, visit her friend in the memory unit, do activities and hold hands on field trips. She plays piano for the other residents, and he turns the pages of her music. She sometimes watches him shoot pool.
They're endlessly huddled together, to the exclusion of most others. She doesn't talk to many of other residents now. Previously, she was way more outgoing. She used to carry around a water bottle to ensure she drank enough. Now she drinks endless coffee out of carry-out cups that he gets for them. She's lost the water bottle.
Mom rarely calls. She's not lonely or bored, though I never really thought she was before she met him.
There are definite downsides for me. But overall, she seems happy. And though she's loved a couple of men in her lifetime, I'm not sure she ever had a great love. I suppose this could be it.
Maybe this love at the end of life will be something sweet, deserved, savored. I wouldn't want to deny my mom that.
Before long, she'll get her own promotion to the memory-care section, when she's unable to live with assistance. Instead of an apartment, it's a room; instead of some freedom, it's a locked wing. I imagine that whoever goes first will visit the other there daily. Or maybe they'll both be ready at the same time.
I try to remind myself that this is a good thing, and though this last period of time with her isn't at all how I envisioned it, maybe making these final memories with her boyfriend is how she pictured her last phase of life.