Julie Muhlstein looks at cards and pictures with her 96-year-old mother recently in her mom’s room at a Spokane retirement community. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Julie Muhlstein looks at cards and pictures with her 96-year-old mother recently in her mom’s room at a Spokane retirement community. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Find those precious moments with your mom in her golden years

When signs of memory loss appear, slow the conversation down, make eye contact, let some things go.

My mother and I took a walk recently.

It wasn’t down a beach near an Idaho lake cabin we used to rent. It wasn’t on a snowy street in my old Spokane neighborhood, the scene of many late-night walks. It wasn’t during a giddy shopping trip at Harrods in London, where I traveled with my mom for my 27th birthday.

On this stroll, my dear little mother used a walker. Earlier this year, she fell and fractured her pelvis. This Mother’s Day, her home away from home is a room — a nice one, with an airy view and a window seat — in the skilled nursing area of a Spokane retirement community.

It took 96 years to bring her to this place — but it came so quickly.

I still think of my parents as an indomitable pair. They weathered Spokane’s massive 1996 ice storm by bundling up in fleece, cooking on their outdoor grill, and going about their business. They are tough people, children of the Depression who came of age during World War II.

My dad, a decorated veteran of that war, still drives. He reads his newspaper every day. He still lives, without his wife of 71 years, in the two-story house they’ve shared for decades. My still beautiful mom is a five-minute drive away, but things are different now.

That recent walk, through the halls of the place she’s staying, was an encouraging sign of my mom’s physical recovery. She had made real progress since the previous month, and clipped along at a pace approaching her once-speedy gait.

There are signs, though, that her memory isn’t what it used to be. Names — the names of people and things — at times don’t come quickly, or at all. Stories from the past are repeated. She gets confused about details like what day or month it is.

My older sister, a retired teacher who lives close to my parents, is my hero these days. She checks on my parents daily, and hosts our dad for dinner most nights. She spends countless hours with our mom, and the staff involved in her care.

Our brother, retired and living in Idaho, is a frequent visitor. He helps my father with the house and cooking. I’m not much of a long-distance helper, and bear the guilt of that.

My family is one of millions with baby-boom siblings worried about elderly parents. According to the Census Bureau, the nation’s 90-and-older population tripled over the past three decades, to 1.9 million in 2010.

All in our 60s, my siblings and I are blessed. We still have our over-95 parents. They have lived wonderful, productive lives. But we’re also stressed. How do we best respect our parents’ wishes, keep them safe and spend meaningful time with them?

Karen Clay is a social worker with the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center, based at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. She works with memory care patients and their families. The goal is to provide support, encouragement and help them find resources.

“Especially for people with dementia, everybody is concerned for their safety, but we’re also trying to honor who they are and what they want,” Clay said Wednesday.

The center created a Mother’s Day-themed video for those whose loved ones have memory loss or dementia. Clay offered advice for sharing time with my mom, which may help other families.

There are practical tips, such as planning a visit to suit an elderly person’s routine. “Folks with memory issues do well with routines. They can be more centered, more present,” Clay said. “If you know your mom is doing better in the mornings, instead of a Mother’s Day dinner, try to do brunch.”

It’s important to respect the need to contribute.

Clay used the example of helping prepare a meal. An elderly mom might become anxious if everyone else is bustling around, but she’s left without a role. Even something as simple as folding napkins can help her feel included.

As for conversation, avoid contradicting someone with memory issues. Avoid arguing, multiple-step questions or a rigid agenda. If something hurtful is said, don’t take it personally.

“Keep things simple,” Clay said. Having something concrete to focus on — looking at photos or sharing a hobby — might be better than a wide-open talk.

“Some people need a lot of time to respond,” Clay said. “It’s hard for a lot of us to be comfortable with that silence, with waiting and allowing them time to take a breath and try to remember. If you see them struggling, don’t jump in too fast.”

Clay said it’s common for elderly people to lose recent memories, but remember the distant past clearly. Encourage those tales, she said, although “they may think their daughter is their mother or sister.”

Beyond how-to guidance, Clay sees the bigger picture — the reality that our elders are nearing the end of their lives. People need “space for telling their life story,” she said. Ask about the era of their childhood.

“You have to be careful and take cues from the person,” Clay said. “If you’re hitting on something that seems painful, sometimes it’s OK to talk about painful stuff. Within that sadness, often there are opportunities to process it. But you don’t want to push.”

Having worked in hospice care, Clay noted the work of Dr. Ira Byock, an expert in palliative care. His book “Four Things That Matter Most” tells about expressing appreciation and love, and offers four phrases: “Thank you,” “I love you,” “Please forgive me” and “I forgive you.”

Clay suggests sharing traits you truly appreciate about your mom. “Say, ‘I love this about you.’ Or ‘Because of you, I’m a strong mom.’ Be open, slow the conversation down, make eye contact, and be willing to let things go,” she said.

Even as memory loss progresses, Clay said people have moments of clarity.

“People might get intimidated. They want to remember them the way they were,” she said. “In my opinion, that robs a person of that ongoing connection. This is an opportunity for us to continue that relationship, to be ourselves and be present.”

My mom and I have shared incredible times. She’s still telling stories, and laughing, about an evening we spent together at a pub in Ireland during that 1980 birthday trip. She has also been a fiercely loyal and strong mother during times of tragedy.

Love, appreciation, forgiveness. I’ll try not to shy away from those things that matter during precious time with my mom.

“Giving that opportunity to have an authentic moment is a huge gift — for anybody,” Clay said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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