Making Christmas Not So Blue – The Activities Director

img_8493 “Hey, come here. Come here,” Mom called out, while Elvis crooned White Christmas.

Remember those days when you dragged yourself to the kid’s Christmas concert? The one that lasted all of an hour, maybe even half? And you hoped and prayed that your kid would do what he was supposed to do in his “starring” role. Well, as a caregiver, guess what?

Those days are back.

And they’re not half-bad.

While Mom shouted to the singer, I sat back, looked around for the activities director, and together, we laughed off Mom’s demand.

While I admire the many caregivers and nurses who care for Mom, the most challenging role in a care home might be that of Activities Director. How do you plan for events with a demographic that loses their concentration easily, likes snacks, but has an adult orientation and wisdom and set of experiences in life?

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who was considering transitioning her mother into a care home. We discussed our individual paths that had led us to be together in that moment with a set of shared experiences about our mothers experiencing cognitive decline.

“But how do you know you’re picking in the right one?” she asked.

I always had my pat response. “It’s only the right one, for right now.”

But that’s not what I told her. Instead, I struck upon different thought, after having spent two days in a row at two separate care home for two Christmas events.

“Meet the activities staff,” I shared with her.

She looked at me with a mixture of surprise and “aha”.

While Mom was still able to engage (express herself and cuss are two other phrases I would also use), I wanted to ensure Mom had the opportunity to interact with guests that came through that day, whether that person was an Elvis impersonator, a chaplain, or women from the local church who say the rosary.

But it wasn’t just the guest appearances on the calendar that were important. Many care homes can program a calendar.

img_8484But who is behind the programming? Who is responsible for knowing who you’re mother is, and where she is, in the moment, and what activities she might deem interesting enough to keep her away from the door (alarm on) when the temperature is 18 degrees outside?

I have one other learning from the larger events that include families, as the past two have. These events are designed as an opportunity to witness how all the staff interacts with your loved ones. Will they dance with the woman who always quotes Telly Savalas’ who loves ya, baby? Does the couple that knows Miss K. from church, sing with Miss H. because they know she loves her song? In essence, how well do other families know and treat your loved one?

Finally, when the activities calendar is plentiful, this too, is a chance for you as a loved one to sit back. Because yes, sometimes the events are planned with you, the loved one in mind, to take a break from being the person who oversees care of the loved one and to just relish.

“Hey, Mom. That’s Elvis. You know, Blue Suede Shoes. He’s pretty good, right?”

“Good. Yes. He’s large though,” Mom said.

“Well, Mom, yes, Elvis did get quite large. I guess about 160 or 170 at the height of his singing.”

Mom nodded, still rather fixated on Elvis, pointing to him several times, while he swung his hips and sang back to her.

Like all Christmas shows, I ate too many cookies and cried at one too many White Christmas’s.

The holidays are especially difficult for those of us with loved ones in a care home, the grief of a life left behind often overtaking the joy of the season.

But these events serve to remind me that, yes, when I was in third grade, my mother sat through countless practices and performances of Little Drummer Boy, listened while I pulled on the too tight white tights, or complained about wearing a tunic (with no pants, this was akin to a dress for a tomboy).

Now, it was my turn. To listen to Mom protest about not getting her cookies right away. “Hey, Hey, how ‘bout over here?” Or, because the music was too loud, and she was unable to discern many of the lyrics due to the singer’s baritone voice, Mom scolded me or maybe Elvis, “Oh, just hush.”

While testing my interpretation skills and my patience, holiday events are a test of love. And Activities Directors and staff are there to make certain I pass.

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Post-Election: Finding Sacred Space

img_8347I moped while seated on the kitchen stool, aimlessly tossing the remainder of Pirate’s Booty into my dry mouth. The dog “hrummphed” at my feet. I stayed, rooted to that stool, head hung, crying.

I had known deep losses in my life, a husband, a father and a sister in a way. The ache that now arose, twisting, winding, through my queasy stomach and up my scratchy throat, in that moment, felt the same.

The election was over. My candidate. The candidate for the many “hers” in my life had lost. Texts, messages, emails stampeded through my every thought, kicking up dust, leaving only more smog.

I paused long enough to stop my stress-eating.

What would I say to all the “hers” in my life? My bonus daughters, my nieces, my writing sisters, my Januzzi sisters, the sister with whom I shared a soul. What would I say to the main “her” in my life, Mom?

I wanted to budge, needed to move through my day. Many, many to do’s awaited. Packing for a flight at 6 a.m., dropping off the dog at the sitter, paying the bills that trickled in, brushing up a manuscript that always required retouching.

And Mom. Sigh. Mom.

I needed to restock her supplies – how I delicately referred to her air freshener and Depends. But also, Mom. Seeing Mom.

I dropped one foot from the stool. Then the next. I leashed the dog. Took him outside. Watched him pee. Grabbed my purse. “She”, my candidate, had to move forward, consider and concede. I did too.

I discovered Mom, busily arranging plastic flowers in a wicker basket. To clarify, Mom was arranging not by any attempt to organize the flowers, but to chew on them instead. I knew that maneuver. It is one she undertakes when agitated or completely confused.

I greeted her with a tired hug. “Mom. Hi,” I muttered from behind.

She turned around and gave me a hardened look. I swore she always knew when I was taking leave.

I tried smiling directly into her eyes, like sunlight – appealing to her now tunnel-like vision.

“Hi,” Mom finally drew out. Then she proceeded to march up and down and all around the quieted hallways.

Our next hour was a combination of Laurel and Hardy, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin actions, exchanging words and gestures with Mom, her shouting, me cringing. Calling into one ear, leaning into the other.

Finally, Mom lowered her softening body into a rigid kitchen chair.

From the nearby table, I reached for a baby doll with pink, flirty pants, one of many that floated around the care home like Elf on a Shelf at Christmas. I placed the doll in Mom’s arms and she quickly lifted the “baby” into the left crook of her neck.

From her right, I leaned down. “Mom, I’ve got to get home. I’ll see you later.” I gulped. “Later” meant after I finished traveling.

“Ok, honey,” Mom said, forgiving me for the sin of leaving I was about to commit. She pulled me into the other side of her neck.

I could smell that day’s layer of lotion on her skin. For minutes, I was bent over into my mother’s chest and we breathed each other in.

My gaze was pointed down when I noticed a familiar bump, right above her breastbone. I reached up and touched my same bump.

“This is home,” I murmured to Mom, still partly in her embrace.

Yes, that’s what I would say to all the “hers” in my life. Find a space that is home. Find that part that still connects one to another. Therein lies the strength.

“I am home,” I said to Mom once more, before dislodging my arms, carrying with me my mother’s fortitude as a gift to the “hers” in my life.


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She lives now in the cracks
between summer and snow
as if the tenth month were not even
as if ones and zeros
and zeros and ones
have set out to destroy
the precarious balance
of her days ahead and those gone by.

There is a restlessness
reflected in the rustling leaves
the ones she chastises
for mere appearance on her path
She knows those dastardly leaves
will buttress the barrier
between her and outside.


She thrusts her hands
at every door causing false alarm
tricking her friends to think
today must be Spring or
tempting them
with the treat of Summer’s sweet.
Caramel-colored days must be
just beyond
where the sidewalk bends
back into sun.

Certainly she will push her way
through to next year.


AJW 10/2016

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Leaving Mom

fullsizerender-50Driving home from a day with Mom, a horrid thought struck me. I slapped at the wheel. What kind of daughter forgets?

Earlier in the day, I had been standing in the corridor of Mom’s care home, flipping through phone messages and waiting for Mom’s “release”. Angela, one of the older caregivers, completed her duty to get Mom “clean and pretty” before our day out.

Fall had yet to blow in, despite leaves fluttering across the sidewalk and earning my mother’s scorn for their clutter. Temperatures were going to hover near the eighties. I wanted to break Mom out of her care home before winter blanketed Ohio.

Mom reappeared in the hallway. She wasn’t wearing what had lately been her usual smile, when even the faintest of light was caught pooling in her faded hazel eyes. Instead, her eyes flutter opened and closed.

“Oh, she’ll be all right,” a different caregiver assured me. “Your mom’s been buzzing around all morning.”

And I agreed. I knew the routine. Whenever Mom endured a shower, she fell asleep afterwards. I planned a drive through Hamilton County’s Sharon Woods and a brief stint in the sun. What did it matter if she fell asleep in the car for the fifteen-minute drive?

Before leaving, I spoke to Angela. “I’m taking her to Sharon Woods. Then we’ll probably get McDonald’s. So, one less mouth to feed for lunch.”

Angela and I had grown close. We cried and hugged whenever a resident passed from our purview into that of the Universe. We wept and laughed over the silly things we too would do when we stopped at this station of forgetting in the waning years.

“Aw, you’re so good.” Angela trudged ahead of Mom and me, while Mom slid her fingers along the chair rail to check for dust. “I want a daughter like you when I’m old,” she called back.

“A daughter like you,” I whispered. My relationship with Mom had turned out OK, but hadn’t always been.

I was born in the middle of a few girls in our family, plus a brother in between. My mother had a hard enough time corralling five children, let alone keeping tabs on four girls.

I tried to do the right thing many, many times. But other times, I went in the diabolically opposite direction. Rebellion was innate, a right of passage for every teenage girl I knew or had known.

I demeaned Mom’s choice to stay home and sometimes cower in the face of her angry husband. I wanted Mom to break out. To stop asking Dad for money. To explore on her own. In essence, I wanted her to be free. Her freedom I would equate later to mine.

Of course, I never really knew my mother. Had she chosen freely? In my teen years, I was of no sound mind or stable hormones to make that call.

My mother was a devout Catholic. I wrote that statement yet, years later, I questioned that assertion. Was she? Did she just do what was expected at that time? Did I ask her, did I ask why?

Following college, I planned to marry a man who had been divorced. Mom wanted to make certain I was married in the eyes of the church through an annulment, but I felt otherwise. I had been separated from the Catholic Church for sometime, and now with good reason.

Mom explained her position. Priests had grown more favorably towards annulment, she had claimed. But I refused to listen, or sit before a panel of priests and allow them to judge me or my future husband. My husband, Devin, and I had our own day of reckoning when he was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently succumbed to the disease.

As the years took me away from Mom, Devin brought me closer back to Mom, to my parents. Because we had moved out of state, we flew my parents to join us mostly in Oregon by then, or Cincinnati, or Seattle. When Devin passed away, my mother worried for me. She always worried, or loved, as I see now. And regardless of the technicality of our marriage, she loved Devin like a son.

Now, we traipsed down the hallway. “We’re OK, right Mom?”

She stared in awe at the vase a fresh flowers now gone dry.

Mom’s disposition was still foggy, despite the sun piercing our view. I led her down the sidewalk and into my car. We weren’t in the car two minutes when her head bobbed. She squeezed her eyes shut, blinded by the sun’s rays cutting through the car window.

So I drove. I drove with Angela’s words bouncing around like Mom’s head each time I steered over a bump.

Mom woke briefly and muttered, “Oh my God.” Then she fell back asleep.

Is that what good daughters do?

A good daughter would have left Mom on one of the last day’s of October’s summer to sit and sleep in her room, with a little Frank Sinatra softly crooning her to sleep.

A good daughter would not have taken her Italian mother through the McDonald’s drive-thru and convinced her French Fries were on par with tiramisu or meatballs.

A good daughter would not have driven around Sharon Woods twice, ignoring the one flaming orange pear tree because she was looking for a bench nearest the calm waters of the creek AND a handicap accessible parking space. Then, force a mother out of her trance by enticing her with French Fries, park her mother on that bench, and breathe a sigh a relief that only lasted as long as the thought, We still have to do all of this in reverse.”

Time tumbled through like the driest of leaves. Mom woke several times when she heard the screeching voices of little children parading past. She gazed upon the children with a mixture of delight and, I noted, a little sadness. I did too.

I missed us, she as mother, me as daughter. I missed that time when she was grandmother to my itty bitty son. I missed that she would not witness the transformation of my beautiful bonus daughters. And I missed she no longer knew my new husband, Mark, who, more so than me, allowed Mom to be who was is in her disease.

Mom slipped back into sleep. I nudged her awake. We slogged back to the car. I acted as her walker, cringing as she gripped my hands for dear life. And hers was a dear life.

When we arrived at her care home, Mom steered me straight for the closest chair in one of the sunny sitting rooms.

I eased her down into the cushions. “Mom, I’ll be right back. I’ll tell Angela you’re here.”

Mom’s eyes closed as I spoke, and I turned down her hallway to find Angela.

Angela was unloading dishes. “Hey, Angela, I left Mom up in the sitting room.”

“Did you have a good time?”she asked in her jovial manner.

“We sure did, but she was a little sleepy. But gosh, the day was gorgeous.”

She looked up at the clock. “I can’t wait to get outside.”

“You’re gonna love it. Have a great weekend.”

I gave her a one-armed hug and walked back up the hallway. Another family was moving in that day. I hurried to move my car so others could shorten the distance their loved ones had to travel from door to car.

As I sat in the driver’s seat, my mind was on buying apples. I asked my husband to get a few from the market and began my trek through the neighborhood shortcut. The neighborhood consisted of 1950’s style bungalows, but the homes’ exteriors were kept in pristine condition. The abodes reminded me of my Grandpa Januzzi’s home. If my parents had moved to Cincinnati when my dad first threatened, this neighborhood would have been ideal.

I drove halfway home on the interstate, lost in thought about which apple cobbler recipe to use. The last one with cornbread topping hadn’t been a success.

And that’s when I smacked my hands on the steering wheel.

“I forgot to say goodbye to Mom,” I revealed to the empty sparkling water can and the guy driving an electric blue Hyundai in the next lane over.

“I never forget.” In fact, I always said goodbye two or three times before my actual departure as Mom held on to me, or took my cold hand and held it to her hot cheek, or reached for my warm hand with her cold fingers.

Four and a half years of leaving Mom. I had never forgotten until that day.

Suddenly, I laughed. I had walked right past the sunny room where Mom was seated and had probably eased into slumber.

The Hyundai driver kept glancing my way.

“Who forgets to say goodbye to their mom?” I shrugged my shoulders at the driver.

“A daughter like me,” I said, repeating Angela’s words.


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The Land the Mind Forgot


It was quiet. The women had been lulled to sleep by the usual bustling sounds of caregivers cleaning up after breakfast and nurses dispensing meds. The TV had been turned to one of those channels that shows the classics, like I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler and Moore, and of course, The Andy Griffith Show.  I entered the room, said a few good mornings, and one by one, the women in my mother’s corridor began to wake to start their day once more.


The Land the Mind Forgot

Evelyn extends her hands
again and again and again
wanting to clasp anything,
reach towards
anything to buoy her
while she paddles in the air
around the island where she lives.

Just then, a flicker from a time past –
of Mayberry and fishing poles
and Aunt B running for office
against a male-backed Howard
clearly not up for the job.

One might contemplate
the parallels of the day
but these women do not.
They are no longer of the mind
to consider such trite matters.
Theirs is a land
the rest of us, on another horizon,
can neither see
nor taste, nor feel.

Instead, a tune drifts
through the haze
bounces on the sunbeams.
That tune.
The Fishin’ Hole.

Someone, a live someone,
and suddenly there is joy
as if the women were not watching
the TV and its colored flickers
that strikes lightening upon their faces.
It is not the TV,
but the jolt of nearby whistling
that pierces
the armored proteins
of their minds.

A yellow sock, tapping to a toot.
Fingers, sometimes used as forks,
drum on a lap.
A mouth, that barely opens to speak,
whose lips form a round “o”.

And a sweet someone’s mother
who reaches for another’s hand,
holds it
to cheeks smelling like
the slick formula of Oil of Olay
no longer sold on shelves.





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Do Caregivers Experience Sympathy Pains?

IMG_7456Couvade syndrome. Sympathy Pains. It’s not just for pregnancy anymore.

My mother recently was hospitalized for a soap-swallowing incident. Ironically, as I observed and helped her to recover normal swallowing functions, I began to experience swallowing challenges of my own.

When she has had what I perceive to be, but she cannot share, hip pain on her right side, suddenly, I throw the right side of my back out, reaching in for a load of laundry.

When she aches. I do. When she smiles. I do.

Our pain is so intrinsically connected, that where her pain starts and ends, I cannot detect.

Couvade syndrome, also called sympathetic pregnancy, is a proposed condition in which a partner experiences some of the same symptoms and behavior of an expectant mother. These most often include minor weight gain, altered hormone levels, morning nausea, and disturbed sleep patterns. In more extreme cases, symptoms can include labor pains, postpartum depression, and nosebleeds. The labor pain symptom is commonly known as sympathy pain.
Couvade syndrome is not recognized as a real syndrome by many medical professionals. Its source is a matter of debate. Some believe it to be a psychosomatic condition, while others believe it may have biological causes relating to hormone changes.

I am convinced the same sympathy pains present in pregnancy, of which there is no medical evidence, are transmutable to those who are caregivers, those who are in a constant state of worry, obsession and love.

As such, I find myself wondering how connected am I to her brain health? What is the state of my own? Will I experience the same sort of memory loss that so devastates me at times? What would I want to tell my children, my husband, who ever is left holding the bag full of tricks to make me tick?

A cousin of mine, Debbie Wick Herd, recently posted a quote related to a similar theme of If I get dementia.  The prompt floated around in my head for days as I considered what would really be important for my loved ones to remember.

I wanted to write how I have coerced my husband to sign an agreement that he would pluck my white chin hairs and for my kids to make certain that I was served bacon at each meal.

But I went with authenticity instead of the truth.


If I Get Dementia

I want you to steady a pen
in my hands that ache to be of use,
roll out the paper in front of me
or flip on a computer
if I am still adept
at that
which I think I will be –
but may forget.

I want to still write
to feel the pulse of waiting
endlessly for the muse to strike
heartbeat bursting through my chest.
For her to paint a picture
– with words
which rush to ink the thin wood
– with words as broader strokes
this time, because though the mind
has shut down
the heart has opened to a
wider landscape
than I might have guessed.

I want you to edit my words,
craft them as you would sculpt
a bust of my being.
You will know what they mean.
Readers have always known better
than writers
what their words really

Do not fret for an agent
or whether or not to publish.
The words will find their way
in the world.
They always have.
They are like worms digging through
the refuse of human tragedy
or wiggling to the top
of human triumph.

If I get dementia,
read me stories.
You will find my most treasured tomes
tattered and scattered throughout
my life.
Then read me something fresh.
Not news, but a crisp voice,
with a new throated call
to keep the niggles at bay.

And last, read me my own words
so I may recognize them still
and say goodbye
to some of the world
I am leaving behind.


Annette Januzzi Wick

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It’s Easy ‘Bein’ Cheesy’ At 88

IMG_7367Angela, one of Mom’s caregivers, spotted Mom and me in the hallway near the hair salon.

“Carol can do your mom’s hair now,” Angela said with excitement.

“Now?” I asked, just to be clear. Just to make certain she hadn’t mixed that up. Just to make certain she meant now, as in right as I was planning to leave.

I toddled into the salon with Mom holding my arm, following behind. Angela trailed in and helped to hoist Mom into the hairdresser’s chair.

“Here, Jean the Bean. You can have these to stay busy,” Angela said and handed my mother a half-eaten bag of Cheetos.

I stood with my mouth agape. Angela wasn’t serious, right? My mother had never eaten Cheetos. Never bought Cheetos. Never looked sideways at a bag of Cheetos.

But quickly, Mom snatched the bag from Angela’s hands and plucked a fat Cheeto from the crinkled bag.

Carol, the hairdresser, smiled and turned to prep her tools and potions.

I took a deep breath, ready to say goodbye.

I had already been visiting for close to two hours, having first attended meeting with the executive director of Mom’s dementia care home for an annual checkup. Mom, er, Arden Courts, had passed with flying colors.

Then, once I had located Mom wondering about in the kitchen, I suggested we walk and she headed directly for the courtyard door. I obliged and followed. Mom led me outside towards the plastic lounge chairs still dripping with drops from the morning’s deluge, which is right where she sat.

We listened to crickets Mom claimed she couldn’t hear. And counted the different species of trees in our view. “We” counted six. She fell asleep a few times with her head on my shoulder, and then I decided it was time for me to go.

When I escorted Mom back inside, Angela had flagged us down.

Now, with Mom settled in the chair, I made an attempt to leave. “Mom, you seem a little busy now, so I’ll just see you later.” I said, nodding at Carol, hoping she would join in the chorus.

A muffled munching sound came from my mother.

But Carol did not help me out. “Are you going to stay?” the hairdresser glanced at me and more or less stated.

If I stayed, then I had to sit and keep Mom calm or listen as she squirmed. “Oh, that’s cold,” she would incorrectly say, as Carol scrubbed Mom’s scalp. “No, don’t do that,” Mom would argue as Carol snipped away a few millimeters of Mom’s lily-white hair.

My shoulders fell. “Sure,” I replied.

I sat back down beneath the hair dryer, prepared for Mom to issue one of her glares or to witness one of her outbursts when she didn’t like what was happening. Instead, I watched as Mom devoured crisp orange tubes of fat she would have never bought at the grocery store.

Everyone who passed by disregarded Mom’s hair, instead, commenting on the Cheetos in Mom’s hands and in her mouth. Mom just smiled with lips that were now smeared with a color of orange Loreal had yet to invent.

“Oh, they all love Cheetos,” the nurse chuckled as Mom sifted through the last of the neon orange crumbs and licking her fingers.

I pictured my mother sneaking up behind unsuspecting residents, as Chester Cheetah might do, deftly lifting Cheetos from their bag of snacks.

“Oh sure, your mom eats Cheetos all the time,” the activities director claimed as she stopped to visit.

Incredulous, I thought. I had learned something new about my mother. But there was more.

Carol finished snipping Mom’s hair. “Do you want me to curl it?”

“No, I think she’s tired and she’ll just head to bed and then wind up with bedhead. Besides, it looks cute just like that.”

I pulled Mom out of the chair while she held a firm grasp on the Cheetos bag. As I thanked Carol, my mother ventured from the salon out into the hallway.

I breathed a sigh of relief. She and I could both relax now.

Mom was still gripping the flattened foil bag. When she turned to hand it to me, I noticed her nails contained bits of orange dust beneath them and then, it dawned on me.

On occasion, I had noticed how Mom’s fingertips appeared discolored, more towards the ochre family of colors and not flesh tones. The nails appeared stained to match the fingertips.

I always suspected Mom’s hands were not scrubbed well enough, or that she was eating her carrots or sweet potatoes with her fingers. But I should have asked myself, how many different orange side dishes could her care home possibly serve?

Finally, I had learned the origin of her dayglo orange fingers. I mentally made a list of all the reasons to “allow” Mom to eat Cheetos. 1. She liked them because they were crunchy, which her diet had been softened over time. 2. “Everyone” was eating them. 3. It’s never too late to change eating habits.

But the real reason had more to do with genetics.

“You liked those Cheetos, right Mom?”

“What’s that honey?”

“Cheetos,” I said and pointed again to the bag.

Mom glanced at the bag and wiped more orange flint from off her black pants. She said nothing as if waiting for a big reveal, thankfully, one she could no longer commit to memory.

“Here’s a secret, Mom,” I whispered. “I like Cheetos too.”

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