Senior woman in wheelchair in hospital hallway


Visiting My Mother in Long Term Care Made Me Long for Her Touch

Oct 7, 2020

They say there are reasons why some memories stick, and others don’t. The ones that cut to the quick or touch the inner heart, usually lodge in the brain, for better or worse.

It was more than a decade ago — I remember sitting in a hairdresser’s waiting room with my daughter on my lap. She must have been about four, since I can clearly picture her snuggled into me with her head on my shoulder. I was gently rubbing the back of her neck thinking about what to make for dinner when I caught an elderly woman staring at us from a few chairs away. I would guess she was in her late 80s and she had a tender smile on her face. Her eyes were moist, and her gaze was full of warmth.

She said quietly, “I wish my mother was alive to do that for me.” I smiled back, not sure what to say, I was so overcome with emotion. In that moment I realized a universal truth: there are times in life, when we all want to be pulled in close, and feel the love and reassurance of our mothers.

"After five months, maybe she had forgotten me — or worse, maybe she thought I had given up on her."

This memory came rushing back as I was getting ready to see my own mom for the first time in five months. My mother is a resident at a Toronto long-term care facility and outdoor patio visits were being scheduled to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I had booked the required 30-minute time slot with strict rules to stay two metres apart and have absolutely no contact.

As I prepared to leave for the visit, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as my mind refused to settle. I wasn’t just worried about how well my mom coped during the lockdown, I was selfishly dreading what I might find when I arrived.

My mom has struggled with bi-polar disorder her entire life along with many other health challenges. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with dementia and 10 months ago she suffered a massive stroke that left her paralyzed on the right side and unable to speak. Her condition had just stabilized before COVID-19 hit. I received regular updates during quarantine from the hard-working administrators which included stories about eye infections, weight loss and irritability.

Without the ability to speak, the few Facetime calls we tried were excruciating. The good news was, my mom was managing.

When Karen's children were small, she would look to see if they were anxious and would try to help remove obstacles for them. But as they got older, she realized that they had to be accountable for their own decisions. Read that POV here.

Now the day had come that I was able to see her in person and I was nervous. I felt silly since this was my mother, after all. It was fear of her memory loss I told myself. I was deeply worried she might not recognize me, something I’ve been dreading since the day I heard the dementia diagnosis. After five months, maybe she had forgotten me — or worse, maybe she thought I had given up on her.

But that wasn’t the real issue. As I turned onto her street, I knew the truth.

Craving a mother's touch

What I really wanted was for my mom to get up out of that wheelchair, walk over to me and give me a hug. In my soul, I needed to hear that everything was going to be OK and that this difficult time was going to pass. I was a little girl again, like my daughter, wanting her mom to rub the back of her neck and hold her tight.

As I waited in the facility’s patio chair with my mask on, I took a deep breath. I could see a nurse wheeling my mom out the door. Her face lit up as soon as she saw me, and I instinctively moved forward to touch her. I was gently reminded that it was not allowed and I sat back down, relieved that my mom looked well. Her comprehension seemed to be about the same and there was no doubt she was following the conversation.

I could tell the visit was tiring for her and being outside was a major change in the routine. As I packed up to leave, I was overcome by the weight of the last few months. My gratitude for the care from the essential workers grabbed me by the throat. All I could do in that moment was whisper a quiet thank you and head for my car.

As for memories that stick — I will always remember the kiss my mom blew me on that day as she was wheeled back inside. It might not have been the hug and words of encouragement I had fantasized about, but it was more than enough to make the little girl inside feel like everything was going to be all right.

Article Author Karen Horsman
Karen Horsman

Karen is the former national parenting columnist for CBC. She is the mother of three and working in the field of corporate communications.

Sharing stories and learning from others is at the centre of Karen's world. When she isn't writing or connecting with fellow adventurers, you can find her walking a local forest with her amazing puppy.

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