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tearsI have a wonderful friend who’s been like a mother to me. She calls me her ‘other’ daughter, and my kids think of her as a bonus grandmother. Her name is Ruth.

Ruth exudes kindness and warmth. We celebrated her 101st birthday together in December. She still lives independently in her apartment, and enjoys outings with various family members who vie for the privilege. She’s sharp as a tack, loves to discuss current affairs, politics, and our baseball Cardinals.

After a recent hospital stay she was released to a rehab facility to help her regain strength.

I visited Ruth daily to keep her company, and keep her from feeling forgotten in the institutional setting, lovely as this one was. I spent mornings with her, chatting and providing a distraction from the disruptions coming from the corridors.

In the first days of her stay, I would stroll down the hall and look for her in the therapy center. Often I would be waved in by the staff, invited to sit with her while she played balloon catch with the therapist. The staff was charmed by this delightful woman, always amazed to learn her actual age. They’d consistently peg her as 80-ish. That’s our Ruth.

As the days went on, however, I’d find myself tightening my jaw as I walked to her room. I would notice that my fists were clenched as I approached the nurses’ station. I knew exactly why. I had begun to have flashbacks to the late ‘80s, notable for my late mother’s nursing home odyssey.

Things that hadn’t entered my mind for years came back to me, slowly at first, then like a flood of biblical proportions. Memories long suppressed of how Alzheimer’s disease robbed her of herself at an early age washed over me every time I walked those corridors. The empty-eyed, hunched-over elderly, in their wheelchairs, lining the halls evoked images of my mother in her various stages of decline.

Early on, my mother endured a series of urinary tract infections which led to repeated hospitalizations. Eventually, reality hit me like a sledgehammer, (“Hello? Neglect? Is that you?”) and I moved her to a top-notch nursing home. Here she received excellent care in a safe setting. This facility was under the same ownership as the one Ruth was in, and although 24 years have passed, the similarities (including the names) picked away at the scabs on my psyche.

Now, although I was there visiting an alert and aware centenarian, I could feel my mother’s presence. Despite the engaging conversations Ruth and I were having, I couldn’t shake the sense of despair and loss that I thought I had buried long ago. Each time I had to check with a nurse about Ruth’s medication, my stomach tied in a knot. When I would contact the social worker about a care plan for Ruth’s release, my head hurt.

It became increasingly difficult for me to set foot in the place. I’d pull into a parking space and sit for up to ten minutes, girding myself. I had to force myself to take deep breaths to stay steady, and to put on a happy face when I greeted Ruth. Once I was in her presence, I was fine. Yet after I’d kiss her goodbye, it would all start up again. Pounding heart, shallow breaths, tight jaw.

I also noticed how much trouble I was having focusing on my own life. I’d forget to plan something for dinner, resulting in extra trips to the supermarket. Or I’d have chicken in the oven and nothing to go with it. I was unable to make phone calls to friends. I started taking naps in the afternoon.

By the time her rehab ended, I realized that this wasn’t just about my mother. I had begun to see myself as the next in line. At 64, I’m not that far away from being the one in the bed or the chair, with empty eyes and unanswered pleas for help. Nor from being incompetent to live on my own, just another patient to a series of anonymous caregivers. I went right down the rabbit hole.

The day after Ruth went home, I was giving my daughter a long-distance update on how well Ruth was doing. She told me I sounded tired. Unexpectedly, I poured out all my feelings about being in the nursing home, and all the memories it had evoked.

She said, “Mom, of course! This was horrific– you have PTSD when it comes to nursing homes. The whole Grandma experience was such a nightmare for you.”

Oh. Right. Exactly. How did I raise such a smart and insightful kid?

She really nailed it—the whole journey for my mother was my journey, too, and it was traumatic for me in a hundred ways. We often hear it said that the family of the Alzheimer’s patient suffers the most, because we actually realize what’s being lost.

When my mother died in 1990 I was 40 years old and had young kids. Now I’m a multiple grandma with an empty nest, a wrinkled neck, and age spots. I know I’m privileged to get this far; we all have friends who were not so fortunate. But sometimes the future is scary.

My short-term goal is to help Ruth stay out of the hospital and the nursing home. My long-term goal is to do the same for me.

I’m glad my daughter was able to define this for me. With this added perspective, I’ll try to stay out of the combat zones, at least emotionally. If the PTSD should recur, I will ask for help.  Now I know my demon’s name.

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