Last winter, December 2008, we were hit with a huge ice storm. Power was out for weeks. Mom did not cope with this winter storm in New England, she did not successfully deal with the power outage, the long dark days, and keeping her wood stove going.
She flunked bigtime!
This was how we finally realized that her dementia had fooled all of us.
"Oh, I have plenty of food, I have water for drinking, I have water to flush the toilets, I have plenty of wood for the wood stove, I have candles, I have a flashlight... "
Every time I called to check on her, she would say the same thing, she was telling me all the things I needed to hear to believe that she was taking care of herself and coping with winter storm and power outage.
And of course I believed her, why wouldn't I? She's used a wood stove as a complimentary heat system for over 20 years. As my Scout leader, she took our troop on winter backpacking adventures. She is a smart resourceful woman.
Friends and neighbors would call to check on her during the storm. She would repeat the same mantra: I have food, I have water, I have wood. Maybe the questions we should have been asking were, “what did you eat for lunch”, “is there a fire in the wood stove”?
My landline phone wires had been ripped off my house, my cell phone was dead. I asked Mom to call my cell phone and leave messages, I would call her when I could recharge. The messages I got from her were very odd. “I can’t hear you, talk louder.” It was as if she couldn’t use an answering machine. “Your never answer your home phone, talk to me, what, speak louder.”
The truth was that she was not coping. Plenty of food only counts if you cook and eat. She did not have any water for drinking, washing, or flushing. A flashlight is only good if it has working batteries, and you can find it. Candles are only useful if you light them. A wood stove only keeps you warm if you bring wood into the house and feed the stove.
She did not think to melt ice for water. She could not keep a fire going in the wood stove. She did not understand/remember that she could still use her gas range to cook food, melt ice, or make coffee. She was not eating or drinking.
Her usual daily routine was shattered, and she could not cope.
The days were dark from 3:30 in the afternoon to 8:30 in the morning. When I finally could get to her, three days into the storm, she was lost in the cold and dark, sleeping in a straight back chair in front of a cold wood stove.
Her neighbor had checked in on her the day before with bottled water, snacks, and lit her wood stove. But she had let it go out. She doesn't like granola bars. She used the water for the cats.
Without electricity, my house has running water but no heat, her house had heat but no water. I decided to pitch camp at Mom’s house. I grouped the sofas around the wood stove. I boiled ice and made her wash. I started cooking the food that was defrosting in the freezer and put other food into coolers, with ice from outside. Ice, we HAD ice!
We went to the local shelter to fill up water jugs. Bless all the people who helped at the local shelter! The town had called all the elders in town, to check on them, they got the same response from Mom: "I have wood, I have water, I’m fine."
I found the box of 500 votive candles. “It’s only 3:00 why are you putting out the candles?” It will be dark in ½ hr, we don’t have to sit in the dark.
I found her polarfleece pajamas, her wool socks and hat. I got the down comforters from the other bedroom. I closed off doors to unnecessary rooms.
Friends and neighbors would call to check on her, she could continue the mantra: " I have wood, I’m fine." Through all those days of the ice storm, she never, never asked how they were coping with the storm. She never called any of her friends to find out if they needed any help. She didn’t ask how my family was dealing with the storm. This behavior was unlike my Mother, it also told me that something was not right.