“July 18, 2020. ‘When are you coming to see me?’ ‘I can’t come see you because of the virus that’s going around,’ I told her, again. ‘I’ll be there when they let me come through the door.’ ‘I wish you could walk through the door any minute,’ she said.”
Jerry Montgomery reads from the journal she keeps to note conversations with her 91-year-old mother Carol, who lives in a nursing home two hours away and has Alzheimer’s. Jerry has been recording their conversations since January - before COVID-19 hit the area - as a way to document the disease’s progression.
They talk daily, sometimes with the help of nursing home workers who connect the two on Facetime. Jerry recalls her mother’s reaction to the technology:
“’Aren’t these cell phones quite an invention?’ she said. She moved the screen around. ‘Put it back where I can see your face,’ I said. She held the screen in front of her. ‘Now I can see your face,’ I told her. ‘That’s quite a disappointment,’ she said, smiling.”
As they talk, Jerry writes. She said she’s envious of the shorthand her mother was so good at. Jerry’s a former journalist who now lives on a ranch near Childress. She’s documented history and even journaled for years, but this is different.
Carol still knows her daughter, even though it’s been seven years since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Jerry says her mom tends to go back to happy memories – time spent with her husband, days on the lake. Here's another entry:
“Sunday, March 8, 2020. ‘Good morning, mom. What are you doing?’ ‘Well hi. I’m sitting here waiting for a plane.’ ‘Where are you going?’ She was going home. ‘No, mom, you’re in Lubbock.’ ‘I guess I better not wait for a plane, she said in a joking fashion.’ Still has her wit.”
Jerry describes Carol as a strong-willed woman. She raised three kids, earned multiple degrees, and was a nurse practitioner in women’s health. A point of pride for Carol was making the highest score on her state board exam – in a class of 1,300.
Her husband Ralph died in 2013, and Carol was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s soon after. Jerry thinks her mother has recently gotten worse.
“Now, four months into the journey, my mother, in one of her more lucid moments said to me ‘I feel empty tonight, without anybody I love,’” she recited from the journal.
Loneliness is a common theme in these conversations.
“The loneliness that occurs in patients with dementia prevents them from being as functional as they normally would be,” Dr. Steven Berk said.
Berk is the dean of the School of Medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. He’s researched nursing homes and geriatric care for years. Berk said The Montgomerys aren’t the only family suffering the emotional toll of separation. Families play a big role in residents’ routines.
“Patients with dementia are always getting advice from their family," the doctor said. "The family member may be the first one to say are they taking too much medicine. Family members have always been part of the care of patients in nursing homes."
Berk said it’s possible that nursing home residents’ dementia could get worse because of the loneliness. But he also says some might bounce back, once visitations can resume. He added, though, that no one really knows when that could be.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again," Jerry reads from the journal. "Sit with her again. Brush the hair from her face or hold her hand. And I wonder – when the coronavirus is finally tamed, will she know me?”
Jerry’s journal is now more than 160 pages long. She said the process gives her purpose and gives meaning to her mother’s life. She’ll continue to write down these talks, so she has them when they can no longer happen.