OPINION: The long goodbye: Mom’s slow descent into dementia

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

As I tiptoed into the nursing home’s activity room, I was transported back to my first day in kindergarten.

I was that kid who freaked out in the basement auditorium when it was time to head to our assigned room. My mother and a teacher had to pry my fingers from a pole to send me up to the class of Mrs. Pfordresher, a veteran teacher who looked severe.

Later, when I was in the classroom, I glanced up at the door and saw Mom peeking in through the window.

Now, it was nearly 60 years later and the roles had swapped. I was sneaking a glimpse of how she was getting on with her new peers. Pretty good, it seemed. She was conversing with an old bearded fellow. A new friend. Earlier, however, we were alerted that she had dumped a glass of water on a staff member as a protest to something bugging her.

My mother, Helen Torpy, 92, who no longer knows me, is one of 6 million Americans stricken by dementia. It’s been a long, slow descent that brought us to the bright and friendly — although crushingly sad — facility in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. It is estimated the number of the nation’s afflicted will double by 2050 as the rock n’ roll generations (the Boomers and Generation X) march towards eternity.

Mom’s case has been brewing maybe 15 years, although there’s no Aha! moment to pinpoint.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

The former Helen Gilligan, who immigrated to Chicago from Ireland in 1952, was a force of nature fiercely devoted to family, the Catholic Church and her surrounding community. She was born into a matriarchal family and carried that tradition with a vengeance.

As a small kid, I noted with pride she was the prettiest mom in the neighborhood. As I grew, I pushed back at her stubbornness and admired her rapier-like wit. My friends still joke about how she called them “Lil’ bahstards.” Her Limerick accent somehow made it sound affectionate.

After raising five kids, she threw herself into helping raise grandkids, especially the eight who lived on the same block where I grew up.

Being religious meant diving into the service of others. She was active in the parish and helped organize activities for the senior citizens’ club, even before she was one of them. Her sister Mary teased her about surrounding herself with “old biddies.” But Mom knew her efforts fought soul-sucking loneliness.

Long before that, Mom often dragged my brother and me to visit elderly relatives in apartments that smelled like last week’s cabbage. She helped shepherd them when senility (as it was then called) ultimately enveloped some.

In the late 2000s, we started noticing she was a bit off. It was nothing major. At first, she just wasn’t herself. Her personality, her essence, had shifted ever so slightly. It was reminiscent of the movie “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” One day, a loved one had become somehow . . . different.

We speculated Mom was depressed because of the recent deaths of her brother and then my dad.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

In 2011, at party in Ireland for her oldest brother’s 90th birthday, people mentioned they had noticed a change. Later, when we tried to bring it up — gingerly — she was offended and pushed back. Hard. We were the ones acting differently, she said.

A year later she was diagnosed with having some type of dementia. When we tried to talk about it, she either forgot the diagnosis or insisted that doctors know nothing. We worried about her driving and figured the Illinois DMV would strip her of her license. But she passed the test, so my sister Ann talked her into “loaning” her the car for a while, which was forever.

While telling stories — and she was always good at it — Mom rarely spoke about my dad, my siblings or me. Mostly, she recalled in great detail tales of her life as a young Irish lass.

In 2015, my brother Brian and I took her on a trip back to the homeland because the disease had made her annual trip impossible. It was sort of a last hurrah.

The next year, my brother John was stricken with brain cancer and, being her primary caregiver, and dying, he pushed hard for her to go to the local senior center. It was one she had often visited to see friends and had extolled as being wonderful.

We got her in, but days later, she sneaked off, causing great consternation. Chicago police thankfully collected her four miles away as she headed home, arms folded.

That afternoon, I was forced to make an immediate decision, surrounded by nursing home officials and cops, with Mom scowling from the back of a modern Paddy Wagon: Do we admit her to that facility’s memory care unit, which I at the time thought of as the glue factory? Or take her home? I pulled rank on my younger brother and brought her home. My sister Ann would take care of her. We didn’t worry she’d run away from home because she had run away to home.

Ann and her family took care of Mom for six years, increasingly with the help of a couple of kind, capable caregivers. She is tough. In the past three years, she has survived pneumonia, a broken pelvis, COVID and head stitches from a fall. This year, it got untenable. Caring for someone in that kind of decline is 24/7/365.

My sister and I and three of her beloved grandkids moved her into her new home last week. On her desk we placed a photo of her as a young bride. The picture was taken 65 years ago that week. It was the face of the lady I remembered as the prettiest mom on the block.