Looking for a Sign in Dementialand (Or When You Just Gotta Make the Call)

After one of my friends excitedly told me she was pregnant, she launched into a long monologue about whether or not it was the right time to have a baby. She explained that she and her husband had been talking for years about when the right time to have a child might be. First, she was in a grad school. Then, he got a promotion and had to do a lot of traveling for work. Just when they thought the timing might be right, her mom was diagnosed with cancer.

She told me, “We came to the conclusion that maybe there is no exact right time to do it. Maybe you just have to make a decision.”

Those words stuck with me. When I think about my life, there have not been definitive signs telling me when it’s time to make a life decision or major change. If I would’ve waited for those signs, I’d still be sitting there–in the same life stage I was in many years ago. At some point, you just have to make a decision and move forward.

I remember having to make a series of career decisions in the couple of years after finishing graduate school. I went on a job interview at the university where I currently work as a faculty member. I wanted a sign that I should take the job if I was offered it.

I’m not sure what I would’ve considered a sign. Perhaps a carrier pigeon that would drop me a note telling me I should work at the university. Maybe a fortune cookie at dinner that said, “Take the freaking job, Elaine.” I would’ve settled for a well-done piece of toast with burn marks in the shape of the Northern Iowa mascot (which is an adorable Panther named TC who I’ve become quite close with over the past nine years, by the way). I got nothing. No signs. No signals. In the end, I just had to make a decision.

Maybe it’s getting engaged. Maybe it’s having a baby. Perhaps it’s going back to school or changing jobs. It could be something less monumental but potentially life-changing, like starting a fitness program or registering for your first 5k. You can always find a reason to not do it. There’s always something that makes the timing not exactly right. Sometimes you need to do it anyway. God, the Universe, or whatever power you believe in will not present you with the perfect time and circumstances to do anything. If we wait for perfect, we’ll always stand still.

In the past week, I’ve been asked the same question three times. The question is: How do you know when it’s time for your loved one to move to a nursing home?

A typical response to this question is, “You’ll know when the time is right.” I’m not sure why everyone says this, except that perhaps it’s comforting to think that God or the universe will put a billboard in your life to signal that you should consider a nursing home for someone you care about. As comforting as this might be, it doesn’t always happen.

A woman approached me at an event last week and asked if there was any “test” a doctor or psychologist could give her mom that would give her a definitive answer as to whether or not she should live in a nursing home. After talking to this woman a bit, I realized that she knew the best choice for her mom at this point was probably a nursing home. She had information that could never be assessed by a test, and she had more knowledge of her mom than any doctor or psychologist could ever have. And, yet, she wanted a checked box that signaled that it was time for mom to move to a nursing home.

I can’t check a box that indicates it’s time for nursing home care. First of all, I don’t know your mom, your dad, your grandparents, your sibling, or your partner. You are the person who has the information to make this decision. You may like the idea of a “professional” giving you a definitive answer, but it doesn’t work that way. I get really annoyed with people who answer questions with questions, but if you ask me if your loved one should live in a nursing home, I’m likely to ask what you think. Then I generally just repeat this back to you. Sometimes I rephrase it, and sometimes I don’t even go to the trouble. Later on you thank me for my brilliant advice when I never gave you any advice. You had the answer all along.

Second, decisions about nursing homes are about more than the person who needs care. People with dementia do not exist in isolation. You must consider the health, social support, and knowledge of family members and friends who provide care at home. We hate to make decisions based on finances, but money impacts the choice to consider nursing home care. You even have to consider issues like the layout of one’s home (e.g., Is it accessible?). I can ask you a series of questions about your loved one’s health in order to assess whether or not a nursing home might be the right choice, but that’s not the whole picture. Life ain’t that simple. Sorry, folks.

When I worked with individuals in hospice care, I had a few conversations about the choices they had to make throughout their illnesses in regards to stopping life-saving treatment (particularly chemo). One woman told me that she was looking for a sign that it was time to give up on chemo. If she had some sign, she could tell her family that the time had come to stop. However, that sign never came. She had to make a decision, and it was more difficult to tell her family because it was her choice. There was no real signal that the timing was right to forget chemo and call hospice. She just had to make a decision. It was her life, her choice.

It’s a little different with dementia. Obviously, as dementia progresses it becomes more unlikely that people can make their own choices about care. Family members and friends step in. Sometimes people with dementia and their loved ones are proactive enough to have discussions years before these difficult choices must be made. Often they are not.

We often anticipate that these decisions will be made based solely on the health of the person with dementia, but they are not. I know a man who cared for his wife with Alzheimer’s in their home until he fell and broke his hip while cleaning out the gutters. It was at this point that she moved to a nursing home. He felt guilty that this decision was made based on him and not her, but that’s how things often work. Another woman who had Alzheimer’s received in-home care for several hours a day for a few years. When her money ran out, she went on state aid and moved to a nursing home. Her family felt awful that they didn’t have enough money to pitch in and keep her at home. Love doesn’t pay the bills. (If it did, the world would be a different place.)

Quite often, a person with dementia lands in a nursing home as a result of a crisis. Maybe they fall and injure themselves. Perhaps they end up wandering around town, confused and scared, and their family realizes they can’t provide supervision at home anymore. Unfortunately, nursing home admissions in crisis are not ideal. They are stressful for the person with dementia, as well as for the family. Also, when we must admit someone to a nursing home on very short notice, we seldom get that person into our first choice of nursing home. I encourage families to make a decision before a crisis happens.

There is no pre-determined right time to get married, have a baby, go back to school, or change jobs. You don’t have a prescribed timeline for your life. There is not an exact right time to choose a nursing home for a loved one. Sometimes there’s just a difficult decision.

A carrier pigeon isn’t going to drop you a note, and sometimes fortune cookies just aren’t that helpful. And, as a professional in the field, I’ll certainly chat with you about it, but I can’t make the decisions for you. In the end, you just have to make the call.

And not look back.

4 thoughts on “Looking for a Sign in Dementialand (Or When You Just Gotta Make the Call)

Comments are closed.