How author Melanie Merriman learned to work with her mom as she adapted to an Adult Congregate Living Facility.
Excerpted and adapted with permission from Holding the Net: Caring for My Mother on the Tightrope of Aging (Green Writers Press) Copyright (c) 2017 Melanie P. Merriman, PhD
I flew to Raleigh-Durham and drove the two and a half hours down Route 70 to New Bern, North Carolina. I’d gotten to know this highway well—the Bojangles billboards (Carolina Born and Breaded); Jones Sausage Road; signs for the Nahunta Pork Center; and Wilber’s Barbeque. I measured my progress by the larger towns—Clayton, Goldsboro, Kinston—and the final stretch of divided, limited-access road, where the speed limit finally rose from forty-five or fifty to sixty-five miles per hour.
I turned onto the pine straw in [my sister] Barb and [her husband] Phil’s driveway that afternoon, and at 5:30, we picked up Mom and went out for fish and chips at Captain Ratty’s. Mom didn’t eat much—some clam chowder, a little salad, and a glass of wine. I asked a lot of questions, and generally tried to keep the conversation upbeat. By 7:00, we were back at McCarthy Court. Mom said she was tired, so I just walked her up to her apartment and said goodnight.
“See you in the morning,” I said, “around eight o’ clock. Is that okay?”
“Anytime,” said Mom.
“Love you,” I said as we hugged.
The next day, Barbara and I were up early, as usual, and went for a walk while it was still cool. After a shower, I headed to Harris Teeter, the local grocery store, for a cappuccino and two muffins—one for me, and one for Mom.
Just before 8:00 a.m., I knocked, then pushed open Mom’s unlocked door. The furniture—sofa, chairs, heavy marble coffee table, entertainment center and TV—fit the space well. Everything was familiar except the smell—that very specific mixture of Daddy’s pipe tobacco, a hint of flowery potpourri, and delicious cooking aromas was missing. Instead, I detected the scent of fresh paint and carpet cleaner. The twenty-year-old furniture looked new, because in Florida, the living room had gotten little use. Now, it was the only furniture outside of the bedrooms. I could see that Mom had chosen one of the floral side chairs as her “throne,” and kept one of the teak TV trays nearby. Barbara and Phil had hung some of the artwork, but more of it was stacked near the sliding doors to the balcony. A few unpacked boxes sat next to the kitchen.
“I got tired of setting up,” Mom said, “and I could tell Barb was exhausted, so I told her we’d finish another time.”
“Well, that’s one reason I came, so I could help you get settled. I think we need to set up your étagère and get some plants. Then you’ll feel more at home.”
“Alright, but not now. Let’s just sit and visit.”
Sit and visit? I thought. I want to get to work. I want to get this done. I want you to perk up and get with the program.
“I brought muffins.” I forced my sunniest smile as I pulled them out of the bag and cut each one in half. “Let’s share. Do you need a warm-up on your coffee?”
We sat at the card table that temporarily served as her dining area and makeshift desk. I leafed through her mail, and made small talk about the dinner menu for the following week. Mom had to indicate her choices for each evening. She explained that in addition to the two choices each night, you could ask for fried fish or a plain chicken breast. Her favorite so far was the lasagna, and she was eager to try the smothered pork chops. She told me again how much she missed the condo and all her friends.
“Hang in there,” I said.
She took a tissue and wiped her eyes.
“Show me around the apartment, and let’s see what needs to be done.” I stuffed the remainder of the muffins back into the bag and brushed the crumbs off the table and into my hand.
Mom said the bedroom was all set up, and I was amazed how much it looked the one in Florida, except with a smaller bed.
“I need a lighter bedspread,” she said. “That one is too heavy for me now, and I like to make the bed every day.”
I made a mental note, new bedspread.
“Do you need any new clothes?” I asked.
“Not now, but one of my shoes got lost in the move. They were my favorite sandals.”
I took the one remaining blue suede Clark sandal, thinking maybe I could find another pair online.
“The guest room needs fixing up,” Mom said, and I could see she was right. The closet held unopened boxes, and the single bed needed linens. I got a notepad from the kitchen and started making a list. Mom said she couldn’t find the key to the lockbox, so I added “look for key” to my chores.
“That’s it,” Mom said. “You’ve seen the living room and kitchen.”
“Well, I guess I’ll open a few boxes and put some things away,” I said, “Maybe I can get those two boxes out of the dining area.”
“Do you have to do that now? I’d rather just watch some TV—maybe a movie.”
I could see that she felt overwhelmed and depressed. I was dying to get her place fully set up and organized, hoping it would help her feel better, but I didn’t want to push her too hard.
I turned on the TV and found Turner Classic Movies. We watched Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby for about twenty minutes, until I saw Mom nodding off.
“Why don’t you take a little nap?” I said. “And then we can go out to lunch and buy a new bedspread.”
She walked back to the bedroom, and soon I heard light snoring.
I closed her bedroom door, and while she slept, I quietly unpacked and set up the étagère, referring to the photos I had taken in Florida.
Over the next two days, between Barbara and me and Mom, we replaced the sandal that had gotten lost in the move (thank you, Zappos), found a place that could re-key the lock box (and then found the missing keys inside—oops), hung up all of Mom’s artwork, and set up the guest room. Now she was completely moved in.
After about three weeks, Mom started talking about McCarthy Court as if it were the best place ever.
“I just wish I had moved here sooner,” she said.