A few months back, I saw a press release for a new piece of phone technology, one that you can use to tell your mother - why is it always our mother? - that she’s already called you 17 times today, three of those times within the last half-hour. You attach the device to your elders phone and a message pops up on a big screen that alerts them to their repetitious phone activity. I wish now that I’d saved the release.
The fact that a company actually came up with this message device is proof of how common phone use problems among those with dementia and alzheimer’s disease actually is. It sounds like a good option, and it may help in some cases, but my mother would have decided it was broken, or “lying,” and would have called me over to have it removed.
I often tell my audiences that my mother used the phone as a weapon. They generally get a good laugh, while they are nodding their heads. They know. They know.
Mom would call and tell me something that she loved was on TV - either a Britcom or some music. She really liked public television, and this is usually what she had on in the evening. She’d ask me to hurry and turn it on. Well, that was nice, but I don’t have time for TV. I would, of course, tell her I’d turn it on, then thank her and hang up. Then she’d call again with the same message. And again. And again. I know she was just trying to share, but it gets old.
She would also call and ask why I wasn’t there to visit her in the nursing home that day. I would remind her that I was there on my way to work earlier that morning. Oh. She’d forgotten. Or she’d call on January 15th and ask me if her taxes were done yet. She’d do this daily until they were done and I brought them for her to sign. How many calls is that? You do the math.
When she called and I wasn’t home, she’d leave a message. Sometimes she’d leave five messages saying basically the same thing. Sometimes she’d just call and hang up - no message. I think those times she may have been questioning herself - she may have had some inkling that she’d already done this. But then, her memory being what it was, she’d call again. And hang up. And again. And hang up.
Before Mom was in the nursing home, she was in an apartment and she wore a wrist band that was a personal alarm. These things are terrific, by the way, and any negatives are by far outweighed by the positives. But, silver linings have a cloud, right?
I’d be stepping out of the shower and wrapping a cozy robe around me, after a long day. I would be thinking, maybe I could sit down for a couple of minutes and read before bed.
Rrrrrrrrrring A disembodied voice would say, “Carol? This is dispatch. Your mother’s alarm just went off. Could you please check on her?”
“Ah, yes,” I’d say. “Sure.”
I’d pull on my sweats and drive over to Mom’s. Most of the time she was lying on the floor and I was glad I went. However, any number of times she’d be in her chair, watching TV and looking at me like I was a lunatic as I burst through her door. She had accidentally set off her alarm. I could go home now.
I was always glad she wasn’t hurt. I’d drive back home thinking of my warm robe. I’d walk through the door and - the blinking red light! No. Please. Not the blinking red phone light.
Dutifully, I’d pick up the phone and check voicemail. “Carol? This is Rosewood calling. Your dad fell and it looks like he may have broken a hip. The ambulance is on the way.”
“Okay, I’ll be right there,” I’d say. And off I’d run, this time to ride the ambulance to the ER.
I’d like to give you “solutions” to the phone problem. You know - ten steps to managing phone calls from your dementia impaired parent. There are a few choices, but not enough for a “top ten” list.
When Mom had just called and I saw she was calling again, I’d answer for a second time in case she had forgotten to tell me something important. After two in a row, I’d let it go to voicemail. For awhile, she was able to get the idea and she’d leave a message, but as her dementia worsened, if she got voicemail she’d just hang up.
Normally, I didn’t dare let calls go unanswered. If she hadn’t called for awhile, there may be something I needed to know, and so I’d pick up the phone. At the end of the day, I wanted her to feel she could connect to me. That’s why I’d always answer twice.
Any calls from the nursing home (mom’s line was private), I knew I needed to answer. They didn’t call just to chat. So, all I succeeded in doing to solve my particular phone problem was figure out what calls were repetitions and ignore them. It didn’t stop the ringing, but it did help a with the frustration. Other than that, I don’t know what the answers are, except a prayer for strength and patience.
I kind of compare the whole phone thing to snail mail. When I was young and naÃ¯ve, the mail was something to look forward to. Maybe there was a “Polly Pigtails” for me (or later, “Seventeen”). Then I grew up and found that fun things in the mail were far outnumbered by bills.
When I was young, if the phone rang, maybe it was the guy I was hoping would call, or at least a girlfriend I could whine to because the boy didn’t call. Of course, in those days there was no blinking red light because we didn’t have message machines. As my elder care years turned into decades, and the numbers of people depending on me multiplied, the ringing phone and the blinking red light came to mean, at best, interruption of some badly needed quiet time. At worst, another emergency and a trip to ER, or a death vigil. To this day, my stomach knots up when I hear that ring, or see the blinking red light.
I’m getting better, now. I still gingerly pick up the phone. There’s still hesitation in my voice. But the knot in the stomach is smaller. I’ve found that good news can come by phone. That’s how I was offered this delightful opportunity to communicate with all of you caregivers: the phone rang, and the news was good. I’m glad I answered the call.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.