Category Archives: Practical Information

Undoing My Mom

Today is my last day of bereavement leave from work and I spent most of it canceling out my mother. I’ve spent the last four years keeping her current, making sure her Social Security money kept coming and was accounted for, updating her Medicare coverage, renewing her newspaper subscription, arranging doctor’s appointments, changing the calendar page in her room each month, replenishing supplies of her personal items at the care facility, maintaining her presence in the world.

Even with the funeral planning, it was about getting her cared for. Picking out her outfit, her favorite poem, the hymns she loved, getting her buried between my dad and one of my sisters, Mom’s baby girl.

And now I’m undoing it all. Erasing her. Canceling her out. She’s no longer on the Social Security or Medicare rolls. Medicaid and supplemental insurance have removed her from coverage. I still need to go to the bank and close her account. I never realized how many people I would have to tell, “My mother died.” How many times I have said it this past week, and it’s a wrench every time.

All of the clothes she’ll never again wear, her empty wheelchair, her calendar –they’re all sitting in my house waiting to be sorted and repurposed. And after that’s done, then what? I don’t know. I really don’t.

 

College and Medicare and My Superpowers

Hey, look at this. WordPress is loading on my Mac again. It hadn’t been for a while. I kept meaning to check into why, the same way I mean to check on why my mom’s phone doesn’t work sometimes. Somehow it always starts operating again, so I cling to hope that I’ll never actually have to invest time in finding a solution.

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Batgirl giving me an encouraging smile.

November and December this past year were full not only of holiday busyness, but also with helping two kids through the process of researching, deciding on and applying to college. The older kid is transferring from community college. The younger one will (we hope*) graduate from high school in May and start college in the fall.

Also, my mother was forced to change prescription drug plans with Medicare. New plans had to be sussed and matched with her medications list and area pharmacies. All of the deadlines hit at once.

And there was a trip to visit the in-laws in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving, followed by a week with a bad cold. Right at deadline time.

My kids, who can be a little, shall we say haughty, at times about their online knowledge versus that of middle-aged adults, had no cause to crow as I was the one who demonstrated the ability to detect links to things such as “transcript requests” and “enrollment requirements.” I might let them live it down some day. In the far distant future. Possibly when I’m old and disabled and dependent on them for my care.

Speaking of which, Medicare. Due to having no assets and barely a handful of pennies in Social Security income, my mother qualifies for extra help on her prescription drug plan. She pays $0 for her premium and close to that for a copay on medicines. It’s a helpful benefit and I’m grateful. But. Every year they make her switch drug plans.

They send a letter saying to go online or call to compare plans and switch. Every year I experience amnesia about the fact that the phone number gets me nowhere. I call it and a computerized system offers a bevy of choices, none of which sounds like what I need. It’s voice-activated, and eerily similar to a badly constructed philosophy lesson. Basically a whole litany of if-thens. “If you want abc, then say xyz.” But changing plans was never a listed option. I tried saying it anyway, which reset the whole process back to the beginning. I also tried, “Speak to a human” with similar results. So I went online and hoped I wasn’t screwing things up too badly.

The only easy part of it was that my mom remains unaware. With the whole college thing, I not only had to deal with my own anxiety and confusion and time drain, but also my kids’ elevated stress levels. My mom has no idea about how her stuff gets paid for and I don’t worry her with it.

As the new year settles in, the status stands thus: My firstborn, who will continue to live with us for now, begins classes for a Fisheries and Wildlife degree at the University of Missouri this month. My other child has been accepted a couple of places, including Missouri S&T in Rolla. That’s Missouri University of Science and Technology, or as we affectionately call it, Geek School. He’s interested in computer programming. We have a visit scheduled for next month, after which a decision will be made. And my mom’s new prescription drug card arrived in the mail, with a letter stating her premium remains at zero.

All of this achieved while simultaneously battling my arch-nemesis, Perimenopause. I can only conclude I have superpowers.

 

*Two words that lead to a whole story in themselves, but I’ll save it for another time.

 

Observations on Fruit Flies

Fruit flies have a gestation period of ten minutes and give birth to eighty babies at a time. I didn’t look this up anywhere; it’s my own inference based strictly on observations made in my own kitchen. We try keeping a lid on our compost container, but it appears the little creatures not only possess incredible breeding capacity, but also are able to pass through impermeable Tupperware.

I’ve found a couple of strategies to put a dent in the fruit fly population. One is performing a magic ritual in which you clap your hands twenty times. Then you purify yourself with soap and water. The other is one weird trick from the Internet that actually seems to work, more or less. I left a shallow bowl out on the counter, filled with apple cider vinegar mixed with a drop of honey and a drop of dish soap. Several hours later, more than a dozen tiny corpses floated in the liquid. I was so excited, I called my husband in to take a look.

image courtesy of ronhudson.blogspot.com

He couldn’t help noting the fruit flies gathered on the rim of the bowl, safely out of harm’s way, gazing upon their fallen comrades. Then it struck me. “We’re just winnowing out the slowest and weakest, aren’t we?” I asked him. “The ones left to reproduce are too smart and strong to get caught. We’re not eradicating the population. We’re breeding superfiles!” He couldn’t even respond, merely left the room, shaking his head.

Or maybe I need to use a bigger bowl.

What to Talk About?

You’re back in your hometown for the holidays and you go to visit your Great Aunt Hilda at her nursing home. You give her a box of chocolates, ask how she’s doing, show her pictures of your kids, tell her a story about  your new puppy…uh, discuss the weather…look at your watch. Seven minutes. Really, seven minutes into the visit and you’re out of things to talk about?

You could ask what’s new with Hilda, but you know her life is pretty static. Maybe the podiatrist was around last week and everyone got their toenails trimmed. But there’s only so much ground you want to cover on that topic. So what do you talk about? How can you pass the time pleasantly?

Here’s one idea:

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Conversation starter cards. There are a variety of sets. This one happens to be what I own. Since I suffer from a generalized case of social awkwardness, I use them in different settings. I don’t always take the box along, often simply looking through it for ideas before I’m in a conversation-making situation. My kids and I have read through the cards on road trips. They can be fun to use with a group, especially a multi-generational one.  I’ve taken the box with me when visiting my mom and it made for some good discussions.  There are questions such as “Are there any unusual food combinations you like?” and “What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken?”

This could lead to interesting reminiscences. I’ve heard some tantalizing tales about my mom’s life that were new to me. You might want to be ready to take notes, or even record the conversation for posterity.

Another idea is to take a deck of cards or simple board game with you. By the time someone’s in a skilled nursing facility, they’re probably not going to be with it enough to play duplicate bridge, but Crazy 8s might not be out of the question. Or checkers.

If you have a tablet and you know there’s an Internet connection, you can bookmark some short on-line videos and share them. Who doesn’t love to watch cute baby animals doing adorable things?

You could have an informal literary discussion. Bring a poem or short short story to read aloud and talk about it.

These are all ideas that have gone well for me. If anyone else has suggestions, I’d love to see them in the comments.

 

 

Rice and Beans and Four-Dollar Jeans

No, that’s not a lyric from a country song. It’s my life and how I’ve tried to live within my means even when my budget has been as tight as the shoes my kids were constantly outgrowing. We’ve eaten a lot of beans and rice. Hey, it’s not only cheap, it’s tasty and healthy. The $4 jeans refers to my penchant for buying clothes at thrift stores. It’s not only clothes – I rarely buy anything new.

My mother grew up in dire poverty, and thus learned to stretch a penny like nobody’s business. She passed these skills on to me. I’ve discovered if you look hard enough, you can find almost anything used. Probably my most serendipitous find was a $20 car-top carrier, purchased a week before we were leaving for a cross-country camping road trip. Here are some other bargains I’ve found at thrift stores and garage sales.

Look beyond the plant to the lace curtains. $10 for three sets.

Look beyond the plant to the lace curtains. $10 for three sets.                               

$15 wooden doll house. It came without the furniture, but we added that a room at a time each Christmas and birthday. My kids played the heck out of this for a good chunk of their childhood years.

$15 wooden doll house. It came without the furniture, but we added that a room at a time each Christmas and birthday. My kids played the heck out of this for a good chunk of their childhood years.                             

$5 bread machine. I've wanted one of these for years, and fufilled my wish a few weeks ago. Thanks to the gluten-free fad, there's a thrift store glut on these. It works! Yum.

$5 bread machine. I’ve wanted one of these for years, and fufilled my wish a few weeks ago. Thanks to the gluten-free fad, there’s a thrift store glut on these. It works! Yum.             

It doesn't get better than free. Found this table at the Curbside Mall when a neighbor was moving out. Snagged it before the trash truck did.

It doesn’t get better than free. Found this table at the Curbside Mall when a neighbor was moving out. Snagged it before the trash truck did.                                              

A few years ago, my son was obsessed with domino toppling. We found these fun sets at a thrift store for 50 cents each.

A few years ago, my son was obsessed with domino toppling. We found these fun sets at a thrift store for 50 cents each.     

Bought from another neighbor who was moving. Multi-game table for $25.

Bought from another neighbor who was moving. Multi-game table for $25.               

Our house was (and remains to an extent) a fixer-upper. When we moved in, we had no overhead light in the master bedroom. But $8 spent at a garage sale combined with my hubster's labor resolved that problem.

Our house was (and remains to an extent) a fixer-upper. When we moved in, we had no overhead light in the master bedroom. But $8 spent at a garage sale combined with my hubster’s labor and electrical know-how resolved that problem.                          

Everyone had a jean jacket but me. I felt left out. Until I found a rack of them at a consignment store. $10.

Everyone had a jean jacket but me. I felt left out. Until I found a rack of them at a consignment store. $10.                                     

$2 shower curtain.

$2 shower curtain.

$10 kitchen knife set, including a sharpener.

$10 kitchen knife set, including a sharpener. Yes, I know, my grout needs help. See the fixer-upper comment above. It’s on the list.       

$2 leather handbag. I've carried this for three years now. It does a fit a good-sized book, which is an important feature.

$2 leather handbag. I’ve carried this for three years now. It does a fit a good-sized book, which is an important feature.

 

Elders Living Alone – Making Sure They Eat

 

 

UPDATE: I’ve made a couple of corrections below, where I mangled Debi’s intent on her suggestions. Sorry about that. Also, an addition at the bottom.

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Since my mother is in a skilled nursing facility, I don’t have to worry about meals. But for many adult children of older parents, a big concern is making sure Mom  or Dad is eating enough of the right foods. If you live nearby – close enough to visit at least a couple of times a month – there are steps you can take to help.

The following suggestions come from Debi Boggs (Thanks, Debi!):

While visiting, cook in large batches – enough for a meal and at least two servings of leftovers. Freeze the leftovers in single-serving portions. Use resealable bags if washing dishes is a hardship, or something your older relative just doesn’t want to deal with. You can be extra green in your own home to make up for this.

Pizza “kits” make an easy meal. Buy one or two balls of pizza dough at the store, quarter them, stretch them into pizza rounds, and place each round on a sheet of parchment paper. Each quarter will fit into a gallon-sized resealable bag. Take two small bags for each large, pouring the correct amount of sauce in one and the correct amount of shredded cheese in the other. Place these in the larger bags. With a marker, write assembly and baking instructions on the outside of the gallon bags. These kits will stack easily in the freezer.

Roasted vegetables also freeze well and are easy to microwave.

Make a grocery trip and stock the kitchen with a significant inventory of low-prep or no-prep food items: oatmeal, fruit cups (look for the ones packed in real fruit juice), low-sodium soups, coffee, tea, yogurt with the latest possible expiration date, pre-chopped salad, frozen brown rice, canned vegetables. Of course, fresh is healthier, but canned veggies keep for a long time and are a much better option than going hungry.

Whether Mom or Dad is doing the grocery shopping, or having someone else do it for them, a standard grocery list is a good idea. Print and laminate a list of items they consume on a weekly basis. This way, the list can be carried in a purse and re-used.

For those on a budget, check out Aldi’s if there’s one in your area. They usually have the best prices on plain yogurt, canned goods and oatmeal.

The idea is to make it as easy as possible to get good nutrition.

Anyone else have handy tips? Feel free to share in the comments.

Christmas on the Couch

It’s Christmas afternoon and I’m still in my pajamas. On the couch. Coughing up a lung. This holiday isn’t going as planned. But then I’ve always heard the way to make the Universe laugh is to make a plan. It must be chuckling up a storm. I’m trying to laugh along and make the best of it. For instance, right after typing that sentence I added to the gaiety by accidentally dumping out the contents of a nearly-full economy-sized bag of cough drops. Ha ha ha!

After my mother spent several hours at our house on Thanksgiving, it became obvious she can no longer handle so much disruption in her day. Her back problems flared worse than ever and she was exhausted. It took her days to recover. I had a little moment when my husband, kids and I were decorating our Christmas tree, our ornaments including a few vintage ones that survived my childhood. I experienced a wave of sadness knowing my mom will never decorate a tree with me again. She’ll likely never come to our house again. I also had a few seconds of irritability over the fact that humanity hasn’t developed teleportation technology yet, because it would solve this problem. She could beam in for a few minutes and then beam back to the nursing home. I settled for taking a photo of the tree to show her.

The best Christmas tree. We got a spectacular one this year.

The best Christmas tree. We got a spectacular one this year. Not many ornaments down low because three cats.

I asked Mom if she thought she could handle a short outing to a restaurant. She believes she can, so our plan was to pick her up on Christmas Eve and go to IHOP, her favorite. For today, I thought I’d make a lasagna and some sides to have at home and at some time during the day pop over to visit Mom again. But over the weekend I developed a tickle in my throat, the same tickle reported by some of my local acquaintances before they fell all-out sick. Yep, I caught the thing that’s going around. Also, over the weekend, one of my molars broke and I managed to acquire a second-degree burn on my arm while removing a dish from the oven. At some point, my life started to resemble a sit-com plot. However, if I’ve learned anything from my mother, it’s to make the best of the situation, whatever it is.

Though I’m sad not to be with my mom on Christmas, I’m reminded once again how blessed I am with family, both immediate and extended. My husband and my 15-year-old son went over yesterday to see my mom (the 18-year-old caught what I have, so stayed home) and take her gift plus the staff gift bag I put together.

Let me go off the rails here, and recommend this idea for nurses, aides and housekeeping staff at skilled nursing facilities. Since there are so many of them, I put together a bag of items for the break room: hot cocoa mix, including regular and sugar-free, a variety of teas, popcorn, mixed nuts, snack crackers, etc. It’s easy and covers everyone.

For the staff break room at the nursing home.

For the staff break room at the nursing home.

Back to family now – my two guys had a good visit with my mom. Plus I put out the word to far-flung relatives that I couldn’t see her on Christmas, so she might appreciate some phone calls. When I called her about an hour ago, she was thrilled to report her phone had been ringing all yesterday and today. This cheers me up.

Also, my spouse and kids make the holiday fun. We’re a geeky crew who all like a good joke. After my two teens went on errands without me the other day, a package appeared under our tree with a gift tag saying it was to the whole family, and from:

We are favored by the Marvel superheroes.

We are favored by the Marvel superheroes.

The kids come by this creative packaging honestly. Here’s what my husband gave me this year:

My husband gave me a box of rocks.

My husband gave me a box of rocks.

No really, it's a box of rocks.

No really, it’s a box of rocks.

Oh wait, there was something underneath the rocks. Michelle Obama arms, here I come!

Oh wait, there was something underneath the rocks. Michelle Obama arms, here I come!

It’s hard not to have fun when the people around you are putting so much effort into making the event enjoyable.

Our three cats have helped, too, taking turns sitting on my lap.

Top Seniority Cat - my 15-year-old kid doesn't remember life without her.

Top Seniority Cat – my 15-year-old kid doesn’t remember life without her.

Cat who is on a diet, but sneaks the other cats' food if we're not careful.

Cat who is on a diet, but sneaks the other cats’ food if we’re not careful.

Cat who showed up and adopted us a few months ago.

Cat who showed up and adopted us a few months ago.

Then there’s the Pandora Christmas station for holiday cheer, and Netflix to give me a chance to watch some of those movies I’ve been meaning to watch over the years. I finally saw “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Not much of a story, after all, but the singing and dancing is wonderful. I tried watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and now take comfort in the knowledge I haven’t been missing much. After 15 minutes, I switched to “Men in Black.” Much more entertaining. I’ll have to dial up the sequels.

While I languish on the couch, my family members have been foraging in lieu of a Christmas dinner appearing for them. Macaroni and cheese has been cooked, and we’ve wiped out the back stock of canned soup. Meanwhile, IHOP awaits for the day when we’re all well again. And I still have the ingredients for lasagna.