Ever since her second stroke, Mom was wheelchair-bound and needed help dressing, toileting, and transfering from chair to bed—in short, complete custodial care. It was a scattershot stroke, so many parts of her brain were affected. She had trouble speaking coherently. We weren’t always sure she knew who we were. Her hearing aid batteries would die, her glasses would go missing. Clearly she could not advocate for herself, and we were anxious about her quality of life.
What to do? My sister Rosemary lived nearby but had a full-time job and could only visit on weekends. The rest of us siblings were scattered in Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, and California.
To the rescue came Team Betty, a group of hired companions who took turns looking in on Mom at least three days a week. The first was Jan, an Oberlin graduate like Mom, and an ardent dog rescue advocate and professional dog walker. She was suggested by Rosemary’s sightless husband Andrew, who had employed Jan once to drive him to a conference and had enjoyed her company. Jan recommended some of her fellow dog lovers to be companions, and gradually the team was assembled.
And what a team it was! There was Nita, the Zumba instructor with a heart of gold. Barb C of the sparkling wit who was also caring for her own aged mother. Barb S, retired nurse and accomplished artist. Marcey, the intuitive swim instructor and reiki practitioner. Ebulient Kerry with the warm southern accent who often brought along her small dog Monty. And feisty Vera, the former health administrator who loved to take on challenges.
The team worked out among themselves who would visit regularly on which day, and they put magnets with their photos on a calendar in Mom’s room so she would know whom to expect each day. Soon we had coverage every weekday for two hour sessions.
Team Betty gave Mom the royal treatment. They took her to Cafe Louise on the third floor for a cappucino, to the library on the seventh floor to return books and select new ones. They sat with her at meals and engaged her tablemates in conversation. They read together, and spun stories about the various tropical fish in the large tank by the dining room. They took Mom to art class and bingo, and for strolls outside in the neighborhood when the weather was nice. They threw her birthday parties. They took her to Friday happy hour and helped the staff serve tiny plastic stemmed glasses of wine and punch.
Despite the modest sums they were being paid, and the distances some of them had to drive to get there, the companions just seemed to love doing for my mom. They took their reward in the form of her sweet smiles, cute shoulder shrugs when they were kidding her, her occasional lucid and sometimes suprising comments, and their parting hugs and kisses.
The best part for us siblings were the companions’ nightly email reports. We knew exactly what Mom’s day had been like, what they had done together, and how she had reacted, as though we had been there in person. Plus they were our eyes and ears on the care Mom was given. They spotted when she was vague and sleepy and might have another urinary tract infection. They checked that her hearing aids were in place and had live batteries. They noticed when she had a chipped tooth and accompanied her to the on-site dentist. They shared their daily reports with each other so all could stay current with any developments. They were also Mom’s advocates. They sat in on care conferences that I could attend only by phone, often lessening the bullshit factor. Vera fought like a bulldog to get Mom a wheelchair that really fit her, not just whatever clunky hand-me-down was available from Physical Therapy.
Rosemary and I grew to love these women, and not just because they obviously loved our mother. We loved them because each was strong in her own way, and tender-hearted, and interesting. They came to the memorial “happy hour” we staged at the retirement community—it seemed a fitting tribute to our mom, who so loved sociability—and afterward came to Rosemary’s home for dinner and reminiscing. We set out some of Mom’s chotchkies on the grand piano and invited them each to take one as a memento. And later we republished Mom’s memoir in a special edition dedicated to Team Betty.
I still have their magnetized photos on my refrigerator, their sweet faces reminding me that we did our best to give Mom a good quality of life and, in the process, reaped a bounty of love.