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Finding a New Kind of Family in a Memory Care Unit

In the throes of Alzheimer’s, a mom discovers care, support and even a “lifelong” friend.

Edward Grinnan
Credit: Katye Martens Brier

I was going through a clutch of mail today, and my heart jumped a little at a fundraising letter from Lourdes Senior Community in Waterford, Michigan. My mother died there in April of 1999 in the memory care unit, called Clausen Manor.

Clausen Manor was a true godsend. We—by which I mean my brother, Joe, my sister-in-law, Toni, and my sister, Mary Lou, with me mostly back in New York on the phone—had struggled to find a safe and supportive place for Mom to live once it became clear how dangerous it was for her to be alone, even in the house next door to Toni and Joe. Her exploits were becoming more and more alarming. In the middle of one frigid Michigan night, she was picked up wandering along 13 Mile Road in her Sunday best thinking it was time for church.

At first, we got her into a kind of senior halfway house for those with mild to moderate dementia. My ferociously independent, strong-headed mother was not happy with the arrangement and tried to abscond numerous times. She was in that twilight phase of Alzheimer’s when she was still fighting, especially after seeing her sisters go through the horrors of it. It was the most heartbreaking time of all watching her fight a fight I knew she could never win. I wonder if she knew it too.

Eventually she was asked to leave. You see, she had become a kleptomaniac of sorts. She stole from the other residents. Not just anything but exclusively religious possessions—rosaries and crosses and little statues, which were discovered concealed (but not very well) among her things. I don’t think she coveted these items. I think as she fought that doomed fight against Alzheimer’s, against the relentless tide of loss, she clung to her faith in any way she could. 

We were at a loss until we found Clausen Manor, which was brand new. Mom was accepted into the first class of patients. Clausen was overseen by an order of Dominican nuns who specialized in caring for the elderly. Mom got her own little suite with a bed, a love seat, a desk and chair, a dresser for all her photos. It actually felt inviting, an answer to prayer most certainly. 

I would visit as often as I could and as the time passed, I noticed that her fellow residents and indeed her wonderful caregivers—led by the terrific Colleen Burke—had become a kind of new family for her. Not a replacement family but the family she needed day by day as she neared her end. 

Yes, and with her, miraculously, was her lifelong best friend, Pat. They’d gone to high school together and were in each other’s wedding parties. Pat always dressed up and carried a white patent leather pocketbook everywhere. She and Mom would reminisce for hours about their long friendship. Except they’d only known each for a year. Yet it was a kind of miracle that these two women groping through the shrinking maze of dementia could still form such a deep and loyal bond. And there was one thing that still perplexes me. Pat would always go on about Mom’s copper-red hair and great green eyes and how all the boys wanted to dance with her. How did she know the color of Mom’s hair in high school long before it turned white, and she landed in Clausen Manor?

I know many of you have entrusted your loved one to a memory care unit, nursing home or other facility. What has been your experience? Please tell me by emailing here.

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