Drama in real life: Moving Mom to memory care

Today, I did the second-hardest thing I've ever had to do: I took away Mom's cat.

Mom's assisted living facility called last Thursday. “We strongly encourage you to consider moving your mother to memory care,” the director told me. “I know we talked about this a year ago, and at that time you and your family decided she wasn't ready. We think she's ready now. She's refusing her meds. She's refusing to eat. She's wandering. She's more confused than ever.”

I phoned my brother, Jeff, who has handled the bulk of Mom's care since she moved to Happy Acres a decade ago. “What do you think?” I asked.

“I think they're right,” he said. “Mom has been to the emergency room three times since the middle of November. She seems relatively lucid after each hospital visit, but that fades fast. Within a day of returning home, she's out of it again. And her confusion does seem to be getting worse.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You're right. Even when she's lucid, she's confused. Remember when she called me from the hospital two weeks ago? She was speaking in complete sentences for once, but the sentences made no sense. She was asking to see the sherriff. She was talking about her dog, but she hasn't owned a dog since the 1980s.”

Then I added, “The tough part is that she can't keep her cat if she moves to memory care. And she loves that cat.”

Happy Acres

Mom moved into Happy Acres on the sixteenth anniversary of my father's death, 21 July 2011. She was 63 years old.

[Photo: Mom in the memory care unit at Happy Acres

She had been living alone at the family homestead — the home my grandparents owned when I was a boy — for all sixteen of those years after Dad died. But without us noticing, Mom began to slide into…well, the doctors cannot tell us what she was sliding into. But it was something like dementia.

That summer, we realized that she was having problems.

  • Her schizophrenia exploded. (She insisted the neighbors were firing guns at all hours. They didn't own a gun. She reported conversations and events that never took place. And so on.)
  • She became unable to take her medication reliably. (She'd miss doses or, more often, take a day's worth of doses at once. Sometimes two days.)
  • Plus, she was what the medical folks call “non verbal”. That is, she couldn't communicate what she was thinking and feeling. (Except on those random rare occasions when she could carry on a nearly-normal conversation.)

The final straw came when Mom drove her car through the back of the garage. My brothers and I knew then that something had to be done. And when the doctors told us they couldn't explain what was wrong, we made the difficult decision: We found a memory care facility with an open spot and moved her in.

Mom didn't like the memory care unit at Happy Acres. She shared her apartment with another resident. Mom wanted privacy. She didn't like the social activities. She wanted to sit alone in her room and watch the Home Shopping Network. She wanted her cats. (She had two cats when she was living on the family homestead.)

Within a few months, the staff at Happy Acres recommended that we move her upstairs to a private apartment outside the memory care space. That's where she's lived for the past ten years. She's had two large rooms to herself. She spends most of her time watching the Home Shopping Network (still), but for a long time she seemed to enjoy going downstairs at mealtimes, sitting in the same chair at the same table with the same people.

Mom missed her cats, though, so before Kim and I left for our year-long RV trip in 2015, I drove her to the Humane Society. There, she chose a cat. (And the cat chose her.) For seven years, sweet little Bonnie has been Mom's closest companion. She loves that beast, and the beast loves her.

[Photo: Mom holding her cat, Bonnie]

Over the past year, however, Mom's health has declined — and so has Bonnie's. Bonnie was never a robust animal to begin with, and dental problems have made it painful for her to eat. As a result, she's lost a lot of weight. Meanwhile, Mom's had issues of her own.

Mostly, her health has been stable at Happy Acres (aside from her ongoing confusion and a continued “non-verbal” state). Recently, though, she began to have digestive issues. These issues led to her having three visits to the emergency room at the end of the year. For the past two months, Jeff and I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out the best course of action for Mom.

Last week, when Happy Acres called to recommend moving Mom to memory care, we agreed it was time. A fourth trip to the E.R. for her over the weekend simply reinforced that decision. Then, when Jeff visited Mom earlier this week, he messaged me: “It feels like she's just waiting around to die. She's not eating. She's not taking her meds. She's not putting on clothes.”

Logically, we think this is the best move. Emotionally, however, it's tough.

Moving to Memory Care

Today, I drove up to sign the paperwork. I did everything I could to procrastinate, though, which is a sure sign that I didn't want to do it. I took the longest route possible, winding along Oregon country roads. I stopped for half an hour at a bookstore (where I didn't buy anything). I stopped to eat lunch. Eventually, though, I could delay no longer.

At Happy Acres, the woman in charge showed me Mom's new room. It's tiny. It's the size of a college dorm room. Plus, it's sterile. We went upstairs to look at Mom's furnishings, and I was overwhelmed. Her current space is at least four times the size of the new space, and she doesn't have to share it with anyone. Mom may not be able to communicate, may not be able to tell us what she's thinking and feeling, but she's surrounded by photos and furniture that remind her of the life she's led. She's going to lose a lot of that when she moves.

“Mom,” I said, “I'm here because we think it's time for you to move downstairs. You need more help than they can give you here, so they'd like for you to move to memory care.”

“Oh,” she said. I couldn't tell whether she understood or not.

“The room is smaller,” I said, “so you won't be able to take all of your stuff with you. Are there things you want to be sure go with you?”

“What?” she said.

“Are there things that you want to take with you to the memory care facility?”

She shrugged. “I don't know,” she said.

“And I'll have to take Bonnie with me today,” I said.

“You will?” she said. She seemed to understand. But maybe not. In any case, it broke my heart. Bonnie, who had been winding around my ankles, jumped onto Mom's lap.

“Hi, Bonnie,” she said and she smiled. She rarely smiles anymore.

While the gal from Happy Acres photocopied the contract that I'd just signed, I gathered up all of the cat stuff. Mom petted the cat. I can't be certain, but it looked to me as if her eyes were watering. She wasn't crying but she seemed near to.

“Do you love your cat?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, and I died inside. How could I do this to her? How could I take the one thing that brings her daily joy? I felt dirty. And mean. Why didn't I simply have Mom move in with me and Kim? In other cultures, that would be the expectation, the norm. Not in ours. I felt callous and cruel.

Then a couple of things happened.

Questioning Myself

First, as I was searching for Bonnie's food and toys and litter, I noticed the state of Mom's apartment.

There was a bedpan on her nightstand. There were stains all over the floor from recent “accidents” where she hadn't reached the bathroom in time. There were diapers in the closet.

I recalled the recent conversations we've had with the staff of Happy Acres about how difficult it is to get Mom to eat or to take her meds or to perform basic hygiene.

Yes, Mom could come live with me and Kim, but am I equipped to make her care my full-time job? Would I ever feel comfortable leaving the house to run errands while leaving her home alone?

Second, Mom said something that reminded me why she was at Happy Acres. As I was gathering gear, she asked me a question: “Are you moving in here too?”

I realized that, in that moment, she didn't know who I was. She didn't recognize me. While I suspect this has happened in the past, this is the first time I've known for sure that she thought I was a stranger.

“No, I'm not moving in,” I said. “I'm getting things ready so that you can move somewhere they can better take care of you.”

I stayed for a while longer so that Mom could pet her cat. Then I hugged her good-bye, said “I love you”, and drove home to Corvallis.

I still don't know whether this is the “right” thing to do. It feels wrong. But it also feels like the only option. And, as Jeff pointed out during my drive home, if we decide this is the wrong choice for Mom, it's not irreversible. We can always move her back into the main living area at Happy Acres. Or there are other facilities in the area that might work for her.

I realize it's a lot to expect, but I have high hopes that one day Mom can be reunited with Bonnie.

We'll see. We'll see.

Update: To ease her transition, I slept downstairs in the guest room with Bonnie last night. Doing so added to my torment. Bonnie is sweet, and twice during the night she woke me to pet her. All I could think is that for the past seven years, she's woke Mom to pet her, not me. Last night, Mom didn't have a cat to cuddle. What was that like for her?

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email
email
10 days ago

You did the right thing, even though it’s hard. Your mom will be safer. Maybe you can bring Bonnie back to visit her sometimes. Try getting her a soft stuffed animal that looks like Bonnie, too. Bonnie also deserves proper care – she’s not just there to meet your mom’s needs. I hope your millionaire mom or you got Bonnie proper dental care. Any dental issue can be fixed in cats these days, and even with their teeth pulled, they can eat (though giving them canned food is kind). As you probably know, cats can endure great pain without humans… Read more »

email
email
8 days ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Glad she got dental care and that you’re trying out a fake cat. Also forgot to share one other thing… at least if I were in your mom’s shoes, you’d be doing the best thing you could possibly do for me, which is providing a good forever home for my beloved pet(s). The worst thing I can imagine is having my pets dumped at a shelter if I couldn’t care for them anymore or otherwise having them suffer just because I was unable to care for them. I’d be much more at peace knowing my pets were okay even if… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
8 days ago
Reply to  email

Oh my gosh, yes! A Cuddle Clone (or similar) would be such a kindness!

Eileen
Eileen
10 days ago

I’m very sorry for your situation. My mother went thru it with my Dad and now she (93) is struggling in somewhat similar ways. Currently she has “help” from 7am-2pm each day but her apt is very small (a studio really) and she no longer has much privacy. My mom was always emphatic that she did not want to live with any of us as she aged. I’m not sure if that is what she would feel today or if that was just a burden she knew she did not want us to have. If your Mom hasn’t moved yet,… Read more »

Anne
Anne
10 days ago

Bless your heart. I wish my sons cared as much about me.

Pete Adams
Pete Adams
10 days ago

JD, I just lost my father after a three year fight with dementia, so i can really relate to what you are going through. My mom wanted to care for him, and could, but after a hospitalization in Nov 2018, it was untenable. We were able to get 24/7 aide in private pay, and were eventually accepted into the Medicaid NHTD program, which paid for the aides, and other supplies. The last time my dad knew who I was was over a year ago. Last October, he became bedridden. My mom was unable to care for him, since she was… Read more »

Last edited 10 days ago by Pete Adams
Eileen
Eileen
10 days ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

JD — does Happy Acres not allow outside help for people in the non-memory care portion of the place? Does she need 24/7 assistance or just someone to make sure she’s eating, assist with bathing, do laundry, etc? The place my mother resides (which is actually considered “independent living”) has small “add ons” (with charges) for residents, but those are for either short periods of time or just very basic check-ins. When it was determined that my Mom needed more, she’s got help 7am-2pm each day (and covered by her LTC insurance). In constrast, my father-in-law went from a similar… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
10 days ago

You did the right thing, and it’s what will be best for both of you. I worked at a nursing home for years and also saw this progression with my grandma a few years back. It is an overwhelming job for family members to care for their loved ones who are declining, even in the best of circumstances. I was also going to suggest getting your mom a stuffed cat, and perhaps taking Bonnie to visit her sometimes if that’s an option. Take care!

Katie
Katie
9 days ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I was going to suggest a robot cat. My grandmother is in stage 5 dementia and starting to forget loved ones names. She has a stuffed dog that she knows isn’t real, but enjoys the companionship. She doesn’t care that it’s not real. It will always be ready to sit and listen and hug and it never leaves surprises in the apartment. Ask for the facilities activities list. A lot have weekly to monthly pet visits from therapy animals. If they don’t have that you might be able to start one. And don’t worry about downsizing too much. It’s hard… Read more »

Frogdancer Jones
Frogdancer Jones
10 days ago

I hope that writing this post was cathartic for you.
My parents are in their early 80’s and are still in the family home, though my sister and I are noticing small signs of cognitive decline as time goes on. You’re ahead on the path that we’ll probably be taking in the future.
You’ve done the right thing. Doesn’t make it an easy decision though.

Mark
Mark
10 days ago

This hits incredibly close to home, as I’m going through this with my mom right now. The second-guessing and guilt feels constant, but you (and I) have to accept that these tough decisions are for the best.

Kathy Gould
Kathy Gould
9 days ago

I moved my husband, who has dementia, to Memory Care in November and it was the hardest thing I have ever done…it is still very hard even though he has settled in well. At his Memory Care they have stuffed robotic cats who actually purr, and the residents love to cuddle them and don’t seem to realize they are not real. Maybe you could get one of those for your mom?

J.C.
J.C.
9 days ago

J.D., I’m so very sorry you & your family are having to deal with this. I’m roughly your age and my mom is a few years younger than yours. Fortunately, my mom is in great shape but we dealt with similar issues with my dad before he passed away last summer. These are some of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make, but please feel confident that you have the best intentions for your mom and that whatever decisions you & your brothers make are the right ones. You love your mother very much and you are… Read more »

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
9 days ago

Very tough to hear JD. But your mom will
be cared for much better. And hopefully, she will find friendship and kindness in new people.
Best to her! And I hope her family gets to visit her frequently.
-Sam

KY math
KY math
9 days ago

You and your brother did the right thing. I have been in this position this year. I found my mother on the floor of her apartment. I have questioned myself repeatedly; however, in my photos of my mom, she looks so much more relaxed now that she is in Memory Care. She told my daughters that they clean for you, they cook for you, what is not to like? It is tough when you see some of the other residents and you realize that that will be your mother in a few years. I know that I made the right… Read more »

zzzzzz
zzzzzz
9 days ago

My sympathies.

I know it’s hard, We went through something similar with my dad, who pretty much stopped eating and whose short term memory loss meant he couldn’t keep track of his meds. He wasn’t happy.

We put him in hospice, where they focused on making him comfortable. They took him off most of his maintenance meds, and treated his pain without worrying about any possibility of addiction. His quality of life improved tremendously.

Shelley
Shelley
9 days ago

Thank you for this article. Like several others we are at the beginning of a similar decline with a parent, and it’s good to know how others have navigated these painful decisions. We have 24-hour home health care for another relative, and it’s about $120,000 per year (in Texas), with very little covered by insurance. A group of us also helped with a recent transition to memory care for a beloved former boss, and in that case the facility moved as much as could be moved to the new room while the client was at a medical appointment, and took… Read more »

J.C.
J.C.
9 days ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I had recently wondered how Duane was doing. So sorry you’ve got so much coming at you at one time. Take all the time you can to breathe and take care of you. This is all temporary.

One Frugal Girl
One Frugal Girl
9 days ago

J.D. I’m sorry you are facing these issues with your mom. It broke my heart to read the paragraph about taking your mom’s cat away. If it brings me to tears, I can only imagine what it is doing to you. I wish you the best, and I’m glad that you aren’t facing these decisions alone. My parents are in poor health, and I’ve never been so grateful to have my brother in my life. I hope you can take solace in each other.

Brittany R.
Brittany R.
9 days ago

I’m a social worker and the robot cats (and dogs) can be a game changer, wanted to reiterate that. A lot of these folks don’t even realize the animals aren’t real, so your mom could think that she still has Bonnie. Here’s a company for cats that are specifically meant for those with memory issues: Lifelike Robotic Cats for Seniors – Joy for All – Ageless Innovation LLC Also look up fidget or busy blankets for dementia. I don’t understand why these work for folks (I don’t work with aging population much), but they are great for keeping people calmer… Read more »

CB
CB
9 days ago

Oh JD, I’m so sorry. There is not really a “right” answer to this problem, which is why no choice will ever feel good. I’m so sorry that this is part of the journey for your family.

Last edited 9 days ago by CB
Ringo
Ringo
9 days ago

I just want to offer a perspective on trying to keep an elder with dementia at home with a caregiver and paid help. My friend hoped to care for an aging aunt that way. The aunt was descending into dementia but relatively sound physically. It didn’t work. She got mad at the caregivers and ordered them out of her house and called 911 when they wouldn’t leave. Various dramas occurred with financial things that she thought she could handle but couldn’t. She got out the front door and wouldn’t come back. The final straw was her attempt to ‘escape’ her… Read more »

Ben
Ben
9 days ago

Sending lots of hugs to you, JD! I remember being a child and going with my mom to move my grandma to a more-assistive living. I was just a kid but I could see how it broke my moms heart. But it was the right move. Now I feel like I’m only a few years away to doing this for my mom and it breaks my heart.
Can you get your mom a stuffed toy cat? It honestly helped my grandma.
I wish I had all the words to say. This is a difficult time in life. Be well! ??

steveark
steveark
9 days ago

My dad was of sound mind but had Parkinson’s and needed around the clock care but my mom had dementia and needed memory wing care so they both moved to the memory wing. It irritated him to be locked down when he did not need to be but he did it so they could stay together, which they did until just a few weeks before their 63rd anniversary when she passed. She had a happy form of dementia, giggling and smiling a lot. I often thought of the two of them, her in a sound body with a failing mind… Read more »

W. L. Bolm
W. L. Bolm
8 days ago

I’m so sorry that you have to deal with this. I know it’s not easy. A few years ago, my mom passed away, and I inherited her dog, a full-bred “Silkie” (they have long, luxurious hair and are real show dogs). Her dog wasn’t young any more, and over the course of getting her to the vet and integrating her into my household, it became clear that my mom hadn’t been taking great care of her. After a few months of living with me and having other pets to interact with, she started improving and her personality started shining. My… Read more »

Anne
Anne
8 days ago

I’m with you, JD. So hard. Bless you.

Travis
Travis
8 days ago

I’m sorry you had to go through that. I think you did the right thing. I found your post relevant to the situation with my mother. My mother has been one step out of assisted living ever since my dad died suddenly in 2017 (58y). We have easily had more than a dozen ER visits since then. However, my mother’s problems are physical in that she has trouble with walking, dressing, bathing, using the bathroom, etc. And she has a tiny dog that she likely won’t be able to take with her if it ever comes to that. I can’t… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
8 days ago

Chiming in with support here. I am so sorry you and your whole family are having to go through this. Your mom is fortunate to have family who loves her and wants what is best for her. All you can do it your best in a terribly difficult situation. Best wishes.

DL
DL
8 days ago

You are a good son. You did the right thing for your mom and for your family. She’s protected and safe. I went through this situation with both of my parents. I haven’t read all the thread, so this may have been mentioned, but I bought my mom this cat: https://www.amazon.com/Ageless-Innovation-Companion-Lifelike-Realistic/dp/B017JQQ01A/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=robot+cat&qid=1642258185&sr=8-3 It changed her mood completely and brought her immense joy for years! You don’t have to put the batteries in; the cat can just be a cuddly companion. The “fur” feels realistic, it’s the same weight as a “real” cat (I put “real” in quotes because this was definitely… Read more »

Janette
Janette
8 days ago

We just moved away from our kids for one last bit of freedom. At 64&71 we are realists. BUT we are praying hard that personal care robots are affordable in the next ten years. Neither of us have any history of dementia or Alzheimer’s. My husband’s parents lived into their late 80’s and my mom is 92. The plan now is to help our two kids to build granny pods on their properties. Flat flooring, single room, tiny kitchen, accessible bathroom. We don’t want to live in their space, just very close. We need those robots! I think the technology… Read more »

Jay
Jay
7 days ago

JD, as the person in my family tasked with managing relatives with special needs as well as those who have reached advanced age, I know the feelings you are going through. It is never easy with an uncle or grandparent, let alone your own mother. From dealing with similar ups and downs I would like to impart two points of experience. 1. If she does not already have one, get your mother a social worker or advocate who is not a family member. Having a person who is familiar with the process as well as being a third party has… Read more »

Tara
Tara
7 days ago

JD, my heart goes out to you and your brothers.
My brother and I moved my mother into assisted living about a year ago.
She’d been living in her own home with a live-in aide. The isolation of the pandemic was damaging to her mental health and she’d begun to lie about taking her medication.
Consulting with a geriatric care manager was very helpful when assessing our options.
Peace to you and your family.

Debra
Debra
7 days ago

Just a different perspective. If she doesn’t want to eat or take her meds, why does she have to? Is the goal to keep her safe and alive, but possibly lonely and unhappy? For how long? Ten years? Twenty?
Also, is there a facility that would meet her needs yet allow her to keep her cat?
Witnessing my dad’s rough journey to 89, and then my lonely and unhappy mom’s tough time to 98 made me question a lot of things. There must be a better way.

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Dave @ Accidental FIRE
7 days ago

You’re doing the right thing J.D. it’s a situation with no good choices. I’m dealing with something similar with my mother right now, but my mother’s ailness is more on the physical side and less on the mental side. Either way it’s hard. Best of luck to you and your family.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
3 days ago

I’m so sorry to hear of this, J.D. Trying to do the right thing for our beloved elders is something that often causes self-doubt. But as your brother says, you can always revisit the situation.
Robotic cats for the win! No potential injuries this way, either. Suppose your mom had petted Bonnie on the jaw and the pain made the cat claw her? Not good. And if Bonnie and your mom are reunited at some point, the cat’s improved health will make her an even better companion.
Jedi hugs if you want them, friend.