My elderly aunt was a walker. After she retired, she would hoof it around our small town to visit friends or rise early to walk downtown to the coffee shop for breakfast.
Sadly, her body stayed in much better shape than her mind, and when dementia overcame her, she was placed in the local nursing home. It must have been excruciating for Onnie, as we called her, to be confined to that small room and narrow corridors.
One day she managed to escape, probably slipping through the secured doors when a visitor was coming or going and the door was briefly open.
She had walked miles when staff finally found her.
There is so much that must be relinquished as we age, but dementia makes particularly cruel demands, robbing not just our freedom but eventually the very memory of freedom.
This year, my husband and his sisters are facing what so many families must. Their elderly parents, unable to live on their own and with great memory loss, have been moved to a residence for people with dementia.
Since their three kids are scattered over several states, their parents have been moved out of their hometown in New England to a home near a daughter in another state.
So, loss is spread around. A home where three children grew up has been cleaned out and sold. A tightknit Italian family in New England bids farewell to beloved members. Everyone feels the impact.
How to face the pain of illness, separation and loss?
Maureen McCann Waldron, a spiritual writer who worked for many years with Creighton University’s online ministry program, wrote a beautiful piece about her own mother’s struggle with dementia (“My Mother’s Suscipe” on ignatianspirituality.com).
Waldron explains the Ignatian concept of detachment. As proposed in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, detachment means holding all the good things of this world — wealth, good health, honors — indifferently. They exist to help us find God, and if we are faced instead with sickness or poverty, God is also there.
The famous prayer of St. Ignatius, the Suscipe, begins, “Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will.” That’s probably the toughest opening line of any prayer, and the harder it is for me to say, the more I know I need to work on detachment.
Yet it expresses what life ultimately takes from us anyway, no matter how hard we cling. And its ending — “Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me” — suggests the freedom that detachment offers.
Waldron uses the Suscipe to describe beautifully the loss and relinquishment that her mother faced over nine years.
Besides prayer as a means of dealing with our loss, a little humor helps.
When my husband shared his parents’ story, an artist friend told a tale. She owned a gallery in a small town, not unlike the farm town where Onnie lived.
One day, the local nursing home asked her to paint a mural on their inside doors. The idea, of course, was to camouflage the exits, making them less an escape route and instead a thing of beauty.
So she painted an idyllic scene of hills and trees, not unlike the rural landscape with which the residents were familiar. Running through the scene was a lazy stream.
A few days after her project was completed, she stopped by to see how it worked.
It’s very realistic, the staff told her, as one day they caught an old retired farmer using the “stream” as a bathroom.
Prayer and humor — we need to keep them both close.
Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.