Twenty-five years ago, I watched as an EMS team took my dad out of our house for the last time. Huddled upstairs with our dog, I saw them carry him down the steps, and then I watched out the window as the ambulance drove off. My dad lost his battle with cancer a few days later.
Last summer, I watched as another EMS team led my mom out of the same house, first on her feet and then by stretcher. Through the window, I again saw the ambulance drive away. This time, though, I gathered my wallet, her wallet and her car keys and followed it to the emergency room, where doctors found a bilateral pulmonary embolism.
Neither time did I realize I was watching my parents leave their home for the last time. My mom, who’s also a victim of dementia, survived the clot—but when she was discharged from the hospital to a rehab facility after a week, she could no longer walk, had trouble chewing food and confusion was taking over where only forgetfulness had been. I knew her townhouse was no longer a safe place for her.
It knew that first night I left her in the ICU that she wouldn’t return to her home, my childhood home, again. I had wanted her to move for years–long before her dementia diagnosis came in the fall of 2012, weeks after my son was born. I had spent hours looking at condos with her in places where onsite activities abounded and she would have a panic button at the ready. She always found an excuse to stay in her townhouse.
After my mom’s dementia diagnosis, I was angry that she had not moved. I was mad that I would have to worry about her forgetting where the stairs were and falling down them, and mad that she didn’t have that damn panic button.
I came to not only accept her choices, but to honor them by doing the best I could to make sure she stayed safe in the home she couldn’t give up. I hired an aide and a housekeeper, I called on neighbors to check on her if she didn’t answer the phone, and I befriended her friends so that we could provide safety in numbers.
All the while, I knew only a catastrophe would get my mom out of her house. Sometimes I hate being right.
On her last night at home, she sat in her brown corduroy recliner and asked me to pick up Chinese food. I gave her some and she soon began throwing up. Then she had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t stand up. I called 911, but the team that responded didn’t recommend taking her to the ER, where she had been just three days before. She’s just having a reaction to her meds, they told me.
I brought a pillow and sheet downstairs and set up camp on the couch. Somehow I fell asleep. In the morning, her aide came and we still couldn’t get my mom to stand. I called 911 again and that time they took her.
Now, with the luxury of time between that scary last night and today, I feel grateful to have shared my mom’s last moments at home with her. Despite the drama, it wasn’t hectic in the same way my dad’s last night had been, when my mom raced around trying to help him. This time, it was just Mom and me, eating and chatting and watching TV, as we’d always done.
I got to see the house one more time, when my husband and I returned to ready it for sale. It took us three days to clear out what took her almost four decades to build. I spent a few minutes in each empty room watching the ghosts of my parents and my younger self as we had been. Then, I signed the papers with a Realtor and let my husband lock the door for the last time.
Today my mom resides in the memory care unit of an assisted living facility minutes from my house. No decades-old memories linger there, but onsite activities abound—and they have panic buttons.