Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mental Health Advocacy

I went to an annual celebration of LA's Mental Health Advocacy Services tonight, a guest of my friend Shirley Luehring Kirby, who is a board member. (See

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez was one of the featured speakers, receiving an award for his book The Soloist about his friendship with a talented musician whose life had been derailed by schizophrenia and who was living on the streets of Los Angeles for many years.

The movie version starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx will be released in November.

I was moved by Steve's account of his encounters with Nathaniel Ayers and how they changed him.

In fact, while driving home I suddenly had an insight about my mother that never before occurred to me in the five months since her death from end-stage dementia on April 9.

Usually when I think about her, I feel grateful that I am no longer spending two or more hours per day visiting her and making medical decisions about how and where to care for her.

But tonight I had a sudden onrush of memory: her lying lonely in her bed, sleeping, then being wakened to have her Depends changed and to be turned onto her other side.

A rush of gratitude followed: Thank goodness tonight she's not sad and alone. She will not be in danger if the fire alarm goes off--will not struggle to get out of bed, fall on the floor, and break a bone as she did last December.

I've uttered the platitude that "At least she is no longer suffering," but always before I was thinking about her inability to swallow in her last few weeks, her being confined in a wheelchair, her loneliness and boredom in the daytime living in a memory-care floor of an assisted-living facility.

Tonight the pain of those evenings flooded back:
* me trying to leave at 7 pm or so.
* her saying, "You'll stay and put me to bed, won't you?'
* me saying, "No, Esther will come. I have to leave now."
* or me getting her through the shower, putting on her nightgown and getting her into bed, then trying to say goodnight and escape as she asked me to stay longer.
* her later waking alone in the night with urine in her Depend, waiting for someone to come, then suffering the indignity of having the sodden diaper changed, often by a man.

Tonight I don't have that worry, I realized. She's not lonely or in danger.

I visited the residence three days ago and learned that now there's only one person on her floor at night in charge of 31 residents. Before there were two.

I've been grateful for the release her death gave to me, but hearing the stories at the dinner this evening reminded me that just a few months ago she faced the long night alone every night.

I no longer have to fend off guilt as I kiss her goodnight and return to my warm comfortable home.

"Can't I stay here tonight?" she asked me a few times in the last weeks of her life when she sat at my dinner table eating a snack at 5 pm.

"No, I have to grade papers," I would say, or "prepare for class" or "fix dinner for John."

I did have work to do, but mainly I just needed her to be at her place so I could have the night to myself and not be setting up the bed, undressing her and putting her to bed, tending her during the night, and getting her dressed and fed in the morning.

As it turned out, her death was peaceful. I was relieved that I no longer had the burden of her care and that she had faced it all with such courage.

But this evening, after hearing about the dangers Nathaniel faced at night, Mom's night suffering and my worry about it suddenly took me by surprise.

Thank goodness we are both free now.

No comments: