In late March 2004, my mother and I returned home (Kansas City, Missouri) from Canada after speaking for the Alzheimer’s Society in Moncton, New Brunswick. To our dismay and surprise, we found my grandmother’s health condition (which had been stable just the week prior) dramatically compromised. Decisions needed to be made…very quickly.
As dementia care consultants, we encourage family caregivers considering 24/7 home care to answer two important questions: What am I able to do? and What am I willing to do?
Suddenly, we needed answers to our own questions. Our professional lives and our personal lives were now blending in a way we had never imagined or anticipated.
Originally, we planned for Grandma (Mildred) to age with comfort and dignity in the assisted living home where she resided, but now she needed more and different care. Professionals encouraged us to take her to a hospital or skilled nursing facility. After considering a number of factors (such as her severe dementia), however, neither of those options sat well in our hearts. But, what was the alternative? The answer came to my mother in the night.
The one place that always brought a gleam to Grandma’s eye was the family farm in rural Ray County, Missouri (close to Excelsior Springs). She raised grandchildren there…fishing, camping, gardening, swimming, and hiking. Warm and wonderful memories have been created on this land for more than thirty years.
During the summer/fall of 2003 our family built a yurt (a round tent-like structure with wooden lattice walls and rafters bracing a sun dome) on the property with an adjoining building that has a completely equipped kitchen, bath and bedroom. Unlike the 8 x 16 ft. camper Grandma and Grandpa got by with for so many years, we now have a comfortable, livable structure surrounded by nature’s peace. Why not use this magical space to care for Grandma?
That answered the question, What am I able to do? Now we had to decide what we were willing to do. Was it a workable option to collapse our lives and care for her 24/7? At first, the thought of it was overwhelming, because our professional lives were moving in the fast lane. To slam on the brakes at this point seemed unthinkable…but was it really? My mother decided to talk to her best friend and confidant.
Kneeling by Grandma’s bed, she mused, “Mama, I’ve been thinking.” In a fetal position, hands tightly clinched, Grandma’s eyes locked in on hers. “I was thinking maybe we should go to the farm,” Mom finished.
After days of not speaking and barely opening her eyes, Grandma looked intently at Mom and clearly said, “That would be wonderful.” In that moment the second question was answered. The decision was made. Now all we had to do was figure out how to make the move.
Some people thought we had gone completely mad and even warned us that her frail body was likely not to survive the transport. Others (including Hospice) became a bastion of inspiration and support, helping us safely move Grandma forty miles to the yurt where all the equipment and supplies were in place, awaiting her arrival. Our short trip to the end had begun.
In late April, most predicted Grandma would live seven to ten days. We said our final goodbye four months later on August 27, 2004. She not only survived on the farm…she thrived. A hospice worker walked with Mom to her car one afternoon and, while shaking her head back and forth with an expression of amazement and delight, said, “I think Mildred has just gotten confused. She must think she has already died and gone to heaven!”
Grandma heard birds sing each morning and frogs croak at night. Her days were filled with fresh flowers, beautiful music, soft breezes, cuddling pets, manicures, pedicures, massages and, most importantly, love. We witnessed the true power of the human spirit and learned innumerable lessons as a result. Here are a few examples:
- Love often defies logic.
- Giving of self (without obligation or expectations in return) elicits PURE JOY.
- People can flourish, just as plants flourish, when transplanted into an environment where the variables are right.
- Being authentic and communicating with mutual respect takes interaction to its highest level.
- The moment we have is now -- regrets of the past and worries for the future pale in comparison to the greatness of the present.
Dementia is a challenging condition, but, despite the difficulties, Grandma taught us that dealing with death and the ability to laugh are not mutually exclusive. Our observation skills have sharpened as we have learned that growth mostly comes in beautiful, quiet moments rather than blinding flashes of light. And, we have been exposed to a new definition of love that has altered our lives.
So, what’s a yurt? In our case, it is the place where our beautiful journey began into the final chapter of Mildred Lee Schaedler’s extraordinary life.