Friday, December 02, 2005

"You're Ugly"

When I take my mother anywhere, I know a few embarrassing events will happen.
Today it was my sister's turn. Emily took Mom to the physical therapist, where she is learning how to walk again after time in the hospital and convalescence.
Mom was precariously balanced at her walker, holding onto the side grips in a crouched over position, looking at the ground.
"Stand up straight, Evelyn," said Michael, the therapist, facing her. "Nose over toes."
"I know, I'm trying," she answered.
"Look at me," he said, still trying to get her to turn her head up.
"Why should I?" she shot back. "You're ugly."
He laughed and continued patiently working with Mom.
Emily laughed--one more dementia moment, an instance when Mom said or did something she never would have done a few years ago.
Yesterday I took Mom to the dentist for her regular tooth cleaning.
She and I usually sing a chorus of "We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz" as we set out on these little adventures. I'm thinking, "Anything could happen. Who knows what it will be today?"
We arrived and managed to get her transferred from the wheelchair to the dentist's chair.
"Has anything changed in her health status since her last visit?" the dental technician asked.
I started reciting the changes in the last three months: "She has a pacemaker now. She started Coumadin in September because they found a pulmonary embolism."
"Oh!" The technician seemed amazed at these events. "We'll have to call to find out whether we can clean her teeth. Do you have the phone number of the doctor who put in the pacemaker? "
"But she only has six teeth," I said. "Why would it matter?"
"When I clean her teeth, her gums will bleed not only into her mouth but internally, and it could cause a small blood clot that could cause problems."
"Okay, I see," I said, and for the next twenty minutes I located phone numbers for her surgeon, the pacemaker clinic, and her internist while the technician tried to reach any one of them. Finally a partner of her internist gave the green light for the tooth cleaning.
I retreated to the lobby for a few moments of peace and quiet while the cleaning went on, but then I felt guilty and went back to monitor the situation.
Mom was doing fine and the cleaning was almost over.
Then Mom announced, "I'm peeing in my pants."
"That's okay," I said. "You're wearing Depends. We can change them later."
I didn't say, "Please don't announce these events to the dental hygienist! She doesn't need to know."
Another moment like this occurred two days earlier when we went to the Pacemaker Clinic for a check-up.
The doctor made the mistake of asking her, "How are you doing?"
Wrong. With a dementia patient, you don't want to offer that broad an opening. You want to say, "I'm here to check on your pacemaker. How is your heart doing? Do you have enough energy?"
Mom saw his question as an opportunity to complain about the problem on her mind that day:
"I'm okay, but I don't like to be spread-eagled at night when they clean me--"
She had been telling me about this problem on the drive from her residence to the clinic. I cut her off: "Mom, he's here to check on your pacemaker. He can't do anything about your care at night."
I don't know what I can do about the changing of her Depends at night by the caregivers. Apparently it feels to her like a rape, having her perineum and vulva wiped at night when her Depends are changed.
(The caregiver writes each event down in her night log, noting "Perennial care." I read the log and think, "Yes, perineal and perennial.")
All in all, there's plenty of room for embarrassment. We just need to be prepared for it and take it in stride. But somehow each time there's that moment of surprise and wanting to vanish.

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