Better with Age: In sickness and in health

Better with Age: In sickness and in health

By Susan Dolton

As we approach Mother’s Day and a milestone in my own family – my mother’s 90th birthday in August – I am compelled to share our family’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease. It has been a path fraught with love, loss and the resolute strength of one woman.

Nearly 30 years ago, our family faced a heartrending reality: My father, the rock of our family, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Like many who take the sacred vows of marriage, my parents promised to cherish each other in sickness and in health. True to her word and her vows, my mother devoted herself to my father’s care, a journey that took a profound physical and emotional toll on her.

Over the course of four years of caring for our father in their home, the weight of caregiving began to overshadow her own health. At 65, complications from pneumonia nearly claimed her life – a wake-up call that resonated deeply within our hearts. This was a pivotal moment for our family.

We realized that to save one, we might lose another. It was then we decided to seek professional help, turning to organizations within our community specializing in the care of those with memory loss.

The decision to shift caregiving from their home to a specialized community was an arduous one, especially for my mother. The guilt and sense of relinquishment she felt was palpable; however, this transition brought an unexpected gift: a renewed lease on life for her and improved care for my father.

It underscored a crucial lesson: sometimes, loving someone means stepping back to let others step in and that seeking help does not imply failure. Rather, it is a testament to a caregiver and family member’s strength and the depth of their love, ensuring that they remain healthy and active to continue their roles as spouses, parents and friends.

In addition to experiencing this journey as a daughter, I have also experienced it as a professional serving in the field of senior living for 23 years. It’s my observation that those families that can consider all the factors and the needs of family caregivers as well as the family member with the disease can find the deepest peace in their decision to relocate a loved one to a community with memory care expertise.

As they explore their options, I would encourage them to assess the following:

  • Staff expertise with dementia and brain health
  • Training programs for all staff – not just caregivers – in how to serve older adults with cognitive conditions
  • Programming, such as music and art therapy which soothe anxiety, uplift spirits and enhance the quality of life for those with memory loss

Here in Alexandria and across Northern Virginia, there are many retirement communities that serve older adults with cognition conditions. At Goodwin Living, where I serve, we are fortunate to have three communities where expertise and compassion meet to create an environment that respects the dignity of every resident, including a wide variety of programming supported through the Goodwin Living Foundation that is tailored to older adults with dementia.

As we prepare to gather for my mother’s 90th birthday, I am reminded of the many years of life and love that were made possible by our decision to embrace community support. It is a vivid illustration that in our commitment to care for our loved ones, we must also care for ourselves. The journey of caregiving is not one to walk alone; it is a path best navigated with support that respects the sacrifices made and provides the help deserved.

To all those who find themselves in the role of caregiver, know that your dedication is seen and deeply appreciated. Also remember there is strength in allowing others to share the load, to ensure you and those you love thrive together.

Here’s to the health of our beloved caregivers and the continued vitality of those they so lovingly support.

The writer is the director of sales at Goodwin Living and is the daughter of Beverly Howells, to whom this column is dedicated.