I have just left the home of my aging mother, after a one month stay, and—after hearing of my day last Thursday—my husband lovingly referred to her as the “Quarterback of Chaos”. The ‘quarterback’ moniker dates back to a comment of hers, years ago: A psychologist in her prime, she read one day a psychological description of the role of quarterbacks on football teams. Much to the amusement of the assembled family (particularly my football-loving father and brother), she immediately likened her own role in the family to that of a quarterback.
My husband’s reminder of this event seemed particularly appropriate a few days back: My mother is 88 years old, takes care of her demented 91 year old ‘partner in crime’, manages a household with the help of five paid and several unpaid non-family members (all of whom come at different times and days, and have different and varying skills and tasks to perform), plus myriad family members who come and go (including me). In 2012, for instance, there has hardly been a day that has not included some family member coming to help. [I can well imagine the ambivalence with which our help (including my own) has to be perceived.] As I left, last Sunday, my brother arrived, to be followed by the second of her partner’s daughters, and so on…
Last Thursday was a slightly unusually busy day in the household. Mom had a dental appointment at 10 AM and had checked to make sure I would be home to greet the workers; a crew of tree cutters and pruners was scheduled to come at 8:30 to cut down a tree that endangered the house; Mr. Fix-It was coming to complete the repairs to, among other things, the chair lift that had functioned since the mid-1970s with hardly a hitch; it had finally shorted out and refused to budge a couple of months back. And a physical therapist was coming to check up on Mom’s partner’s situation, strengths and weaknesses—as a follow-up to his recent brief, but unpleasant hospital stay.
The day began early, when the tree folks arrived unexpectedly at 7:30 AM. They cut and pruned and straightened and rendered into sawdust a whole range of overly enthusiastic greenery in our yard. But I was relieved that they were unable to cut down the beautiful, straight, majestic Douglas Fir that had sadly grown exactly between my mother’s house and her neighbour’s, its roots running upending part of our driveway, wreaking havoc with drainage, basement walls and other human concerns. Its location meant that the cutters would have to render it into small (10-inch) lengths—a travesty for someone like me who was surrounded by foresters for nearly two decades. I was attuned to timber; Looking up at it, I felt its grandeur and beauty. I hated to think of its being cut down….as in fact did the tree cutters. The 1987 Lincoln Town car that my mother has kept (“Your father really loved that car!”) was in the way and its battery was dead; we were given a reprieve. All were happy for any excuse to postpone the destruction of nature’s awe-inspiring bounty.
Mr. Fix-It was late, arriving at 10:45, but he quickly got to work on the chair lift. In the meantime my pseudo-stepfather had grown seriously tired of all these extraneous human beings; he decided that Mr. Fix-It (an unusually creative, motivated, and, in fact, kind young man) was ‘bad’. He made such rude remarks to Mr. Fix-It that I felt compelled to take our visitor aside, apologize and explain the elder’s state of mind. Fortunately, Mr. Fix-It had had experience doing repairs at a special residential facility for Alzheimer’s patients, and was both experienced and understanding. He got to work on the stair lift—right next to the dining room table (where my pseudo-stepfather remained all day long—guarding the household I’m sure, and periodically glaring at the nice young man). Mr. Fix-It continued working on a broken toilet and some electrical problems in the basement until 10:30 PM!
At the appointed time during this increasingly insane day, my mother managed to disappear and go to the dentist. She returned in time to greet the physical therapist who arrived at 12:45. I was initially relieved to see that it was an attractive young woman—usually a surefire guarantee that my stepfather would be pleasant. Not so. He had her fixed in his mind with his unpleasant stay the week before at an alien hospital (the nearest one available)—though she in fact was totally unconnected with either that hospital or his bad experience. He argued with her, answered her rudely, refused to cooperate with her questions or requests. My mother and I took her around the house, told her about his two recent worrying falls, listened to her sensible suggestions about installing poles and/or hand rails hither and yon in the house. Although we consoled ourselves that she was used to such responses from those with dementia, it was still uncomfortable. We had trouble reconciling what we realized were her entirely good intentions with this undeserved unpleasantness emanating entirely from his dementia. He’d have been horrified at his own behaviour had he been in his ‘right mind’.
This day alone, however, understates the chaos my quarterback mother manages, as this was a Thursday (a day usually with no ‘help’—she and her partner normally go to Kiwanis for lunch on Thursdays): Monday and Friday mornings person A arrives to do 2-3 hours of simple household tasks while doing eldercare (so my mother can attend her ‘gentle aerobics’ swimming exercise); Person B comes on Wednesdays for the same purpose (although she is unreliable about time and doesn’t follow orders well, she has excellent home repair skills). Person C (and sometimes Person D also) comes to do yard work or painting or house maintenance on Wednesdays. Person D’s arrival time, like Person B’s, is totally unpredictable. In fact, Person D also came for a while that Thursday afternoon, to work on new doors for the shed in the backyard. Person E comes every second Tuesday for a full morning of serious cleaning, sometimes bringing her teenage daughter. There are others who come unpaid and unpredictably, usually helping, sometimes hindering household functioning. The Meals on Wheels people come four days a week, bringing hot lunches that, though unappetizing, are welcome and nutritious. All schedules seem infinitely alterable—Mom’s a very adaptable quarterback.
My mother occasionally worries that she may be ‘losing it’ because she finds all these people and schedules confusing. But it is quite beyond me to imagine how anyone could be anything but confused under these circumstances (my suggestions on how to simplify were met with polite disinterest).
The Quarterback of Chaos thrives on complexity. By and large, she keeps her ‘team’ functioning very well; and maybe we all play a role in keeping her mind sharp.