Getting a room ready for mom
The room I was about to move my 93-year-old mother into lay as bare as a newborn. But furnishing the one-bedroom living area was the least of my worries. That was one task I could handle.
What I wasn’t feeling so confident about were the many unknowns that went with the act of moving Mom, who has dementia, who is in a wheelchair and who sees the world in unpredictable ways (“Are we going to school now?”) from California to Florida.
Mom hadn’t been out of the memory care center in Los Angeles since Dad’s funeral two years ago. My brother, who was helping with the send-off, and I had no clue how she would react to the outside world, how we would get her in and out of the car nor how she would get through airport security and on the plane. We also didn’t know whether she would suffer the “transfer trauma” her elder care experts warned about or whether she would settle into her new place, regardless of how well I decorated it.
So, like every other time in my life when I felt out of control, I got busy decorating.
Mom would be here (Please, God!) in two days. My goal was to create a space where she would feel at home in a place she had never been. I wanted her room to feel fresh yet familiar, comforting but not crowded.
I arrived with four boxes my brother had shipped. That this was all she had left was a sad relief — sad because her material life had boiled down to what could fit into four boxes and a suitcase, and a relief because I didn’t have more to contend with.
The hospital bed I ordered arrived. I positioned it next to the window, which overlooked a garden. I covered the bed with a pale yellow matelasse bedspread and, under that, fine-grade cotton sheets in powder blue, her favorite color.
I placed a gently used dresser in one corner, an upholstered armchair in another. On the floor, I rolled a wall-to-wall needlepoint rug secured with carpet tape. Then I emptied the boxes.
As I handled the photos, the pieces of art she loved and the outfits I remembered her wearing on occasions both special and ordinary, I felt that familiar ache. I’d encountered these same nostalgic feelings a few years ago when I cleared out my parents’ home of almost 50 years. The emotions grab you by the ankles like a strong riptide threatening to take you to the ocean’s darkest depths.
Many of you came along as I chronicled that journey in this column, which became a book, “Downsizing the Family Home — What to Save, What to Let Go” (Sterling Publishing), coming out next week.
What I didn’t know when I wrote the last chapter of that book was that I wasn’t done, that there would be another move.
I put Mom’s clothes in her new closet and folded and tucked them into drawers. On the dresser, I displayed family photos. On the wall, I hung a shadow box of her framed medals from her days as a World War II army nurse, a favorite oil painting and art she had collected when she and my father lived in France in the early 1960s — all images that would tether her to her life.
The next day, I boarded a plane, my carry-on packed with hope, and returned with my mother, wide-eyed: “Where are all these people going?” she kept asking as we traveled the freeways and navigated the airport.
When we took off into the big unknown blue, she thought we were having an earthquake. I held her hand.
“We don’t have earthquakes in Florida,” I assured her.
Eight hours later, I wheeled her into her room, where she marveled at how her pictures had gotten there, and I marveled at how we had gotten there. I sat with her surrounded by remnants of her long life until she fell asleep on a cloud of powder blue sheets, and I let out a sigh as long as time.
Before I decorated mom’s new room, I read tips from elder-care experts and kept the following in mind:
Edit to the essence. While it’s tempting to keep too much, pare down your loved one’s belongings to the essentials without losing their essence.
Recall the familiar. Re-create the look and feel of your loved ones’ previous home within the confines of the new space, using their belongings.
Don’t crowd. Mind the mantra “function first.” Clogged closets and stuffed dressers don’t help. I wanted to make everyday acts of living simple, and make sure the caregivers who would help Mom dress every day had room. Put frequently used items in places easy to access.
Simple seating. Entertaining visitors can take place in the common areas. In the room, one chair or a small loveseat may be enough.
Clear the way. Safety is a priority, so clear the area for walkers, canes or wheelchairs. Control cords and secure rugs.
Add warm light. Overhead lighting never offers the same warmth as a lamp. Find a place for a standing lamp or table lamp.
Color control. You likely will be stuck with bland-colored walls and no window treatments, so add warmth with color. Choose soothing, harmonious colors over strong ones, and avoided busy patterns, which can confuse those with dementia.
Add tactile touches. Soften the surroundings with fabrics that feel good. Accent a chair with a velvet pillow. Mom appreciates a soft knit shawl around her shoulders, and the quilted throw at the foot of her bed.
When moving a loved one into assisted living, edit their belongings to the essence of their life, which may include family photos, art they’ve collected and, in my mother’s case, her Bible.