Open-Minded: Keeping Mom mentally healthy

Special to The Herald

My mom turned 95 last month — and her body is feeling every year of it. Her nine children are doing our best to keep her mental health from doing the same.

Two short years ago, my mother celebrated her 93rd birthday by playing croquet, a game she has enjoyed since childhood. At the time, she had recently stopped driving, but other than that her body and mind pretty much did what she wanted them to.

Less than a year ago, Mom would grab the garden hoe that had become a permanent fixture in the living room and use it as a walking stick when she descended the hill to snip some irises, roses or tiger lilies for a bouquet.

Now, though, like many elderly women, she is increasingly susceptible to urinary tract infections. She gets another one within a month or so after medication cures the previous one.

The infections cause her dizziness, lethargy and mental confusion. She suffers memory loss and can’t find the words she wants to say.

The UTIs also make her weak and shaky, unsteady on her feet.

Her waking up and saying, “I am not myself today,” often is our first indication that another infection has crept in.

In late July, while dealing with a UTI, she moved to stand, lost her balance and fell. An ambulance swooped her up and took her to the ER. After a few days’ stay at the hospital, she was transferred to a nursing home’s skilled care unit.

We all thought it would be a temporary stay and she soon would be back on the farm, where she lived with my brother and spent much of her time reading, praying and watching the seasons change — the flowers in her yard blooming, the lettuce and green beans in her garden growing, the two maple trees that she and my dad planted in the front yard more than 60 years ago changing colors.

Children and grandchildren dropped in often, and most Sunday afternoons found her playing cards with some of my siblings.

With supervision from my brother as needed, she continued to cook many of their meals.

And then came that July UTI, and quick as a fall, her life — and ours — changed.

She has been in the nursing home ever since, now in an assisted living wing. A walker or wheelchair is her constant companion, and her tiny steps resemble shuffling as she fears another mishap.

Mom has never been one to complain, and I have never heard her utter a single curse word. The last time I heard her even raise her voice was probably 40 years ago and likely was directed at one of her children shirking chores.

So she is not grumbling about this new environment and lifestyle that were thrust upon her, that she has no control over and that made her leave her home of 75 years without so much as packing a bag.

Mom was a longtime volunteer at the nursing home where she now lives, but still she has not embraced this new way of life.

At first, as I mentioned, we all thought it would be temporary. She was just passing through, so no need to get attached.

Perhaps that delusion began to fade in late August, when she was “tested” on how many times in 30 seconds she could stand up from a sitting position. For her age, we were told, the standard is nine.

Mom could do it four times.

Shortly after that, we learned that despite ongoing physical and occupational therapy, she was maintaining rather than improving her strength and abilities.

In late September, she could complete only three stand-up-sit-downs in 30 seconds.

It was not supposed to come to this for a woman who 30-some years ago served on the Dubois County Council on Aging with former Huntingburg Mayor Dale Helmerich. At the time, both that council and the statewide one were dealing with the concept of “aging in place,” trying to figure out what needed to happen for the elderly to spend their final years in their own homes rather than nursing facilities.

About as soon as it finally sunk into me that Mom’s living environment might well be a permanent change, someone affiliated with the nursing home got COVID. Group activities were suspended; even bingo, after being played a few times in the hallway with residents socially distanced, halted.

By then, Mom had been choosing to eat most of her meals in her room, alone except for family visitors; now when I might have done a better job of encouraging her to leave her room more, she felt safer eating there.

Even before the few days when in-room visits stopped and even family could visit only outdoors, Mom started taking more naps. And right after supper, she’d call it a day and go to bed. Now, with even more structure lost, we could only imagine what was going on inside.

These days, we’re back to having in-room visits, a single family member at a time, and we are making a more conscious effort to keep Mom mentally healthy. Interaction and conversation are more important than ever, and we fill her days with our one-on-one presence and whatever activities we can dream up.

One of my sisters asks her questions about her childhood and writes down the answers.

We play cards.

I am reading a novel to her and we talk about the characters.

My brothers fill her in on how much rain falls and the harvest schedule.

Some siblings pray the rosary or watch the Mass on TV with her.

For her birthday on Sept. 4, we had a card shower and a few hours of “open house” for family members. One of my sisters brought in the ingredients for homemade bread like Mom used to make several times a week. She had the strength to mix them, but then had a granddaughter stir the mixture and someone else knead it.

The following morning, when my sister left for Mass after a short visit, Mom told her to “pray for me, too. Better make it in thanksgiving because that went so good yet yesterday.”

She received more than 200 cards, and a wall of her room now displays a rotating exhibit of flowers and balloons and best wishes that she studies from her recliner. She asks questions about specific cards and the people who sent them.

One or the other of us helped Mom call three of her friends on their birthdays. When one of those women dropped by for a visit, Mom said to her before she left: “I sure thank you for coming. I think my ‘stopping in’ is over.”

Another sister and her family acquired a Shih Tzu-Bichon pup last year, and they have his vet papers on file with the nursing home, allowing him to visit also. Mom lights up on seeing him and sometimes remembers Zeus’ name before those of his humans.

At some point during each of my visits, Mom and I review positive things that have occurred in our lives since we last saw each other. I always can afford to be reminded of joys in my life, and I am more than happy to help remind my mother of the same.

I ask her how she is feeling and encourage honesty in her answers. I don’t want to hear her standby “What is, is.”

One day in late August, she replied to that question with, “I like it here, but it’s not what I’m used to. I just know it has to be this way. … What should I be sad about? Everybody is doing it to my needs instead of their own. What should I be worried about?”

In late September, after Mom said “I love you” in the middle of our visit and held my hand more tightly than usual, I asked her if it was getting tougher to be there.

“I don’t know how much tougher it can be,” she replied stoically.

I took a quick breath in and vowed to do more. When I visited the next day, we enjoyed an impromptu spelling bee and talked about playing Scrabble again soon.

I am inching closer to full acceptance of our new normal — but in my mind’s eye I see my mom on the farm. I see her white, two-story house ringed by acres of fields and trees. The kittens scampering in the barnyard are just the latest example of the generations of creatures she spent so much of her life caring for.

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee, which provides funding for her columns related to mental health. She helps senior citizens write their life stories. Read her blogs at Email her at


What to Talk About

If you find it difficult to engage with elderly loved ones in conversation, try going to the past. Taking an interest as your loved ones reminisce about happy times not only helps them pass the time but also can help them feel appreciated and content.

While you are at it, write or record the answers. You’ll be glad you did.

Here are some sample queries to get you started. Based on the answers, be sure to ask follow-up questions.

What did your childhood home look like? Tell me about your parents and siblings.

What were your regular household chores? Were you good about doing them? Were there any that you just hated to do?

What games did you enjoy as a child? Who would you play them with?

What was your favorite subject in school? What do you remember about your school days?

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