When strokes left Dudley Clendinen's mother unable to speak or walk, he and his sister didn't know how to relate to her anymore. Should they deal with their mother as they did when the "whole person" was there -- or just with the fraction of her that seemed to be left? As Clendinen observes in A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America, "The whole person would miss us if we didn't visit. The fraction might not know the difference."
Clendinen chose to act as if it mattered. For nine years until his mother's death, he regularly visited her at Canterbury, a "life care" facility in Tampa Bay, Florida, traveling from his home in Baltimore and telling her stories that he knew his whole mother would enjoy. At one point, a physician's assistant, reading his frustration at not being able to decipher his mother's thoughts, tried to soothe him by telling him that Bobbie Clendinen probably had not been able to think, comprehend, or remember for several years, and might not even know who he was. But Clendinen came to believe she was wrong -- that his mother could comprehend and process at least some of what he was saying.
"One thing I learned from the long years of dealing with Mother is that the perception of who or how much is still there is entirely a personal one," he says. "I know for a certainty that deep into that five-year period that the assistant was speaking of, I could get my mother to react, to laugh at something she would have laughed at when she was intellectually competent. That was the clearest way I knew that I was still reaching her."
Clendinen found that the professionals who cared for his mother also varied in their assessments of her capabilities, depending on their relationship with her. Closest to his point of view were those who were closest to his mother -- "the caregivers, who always felt that the spark was still in Mother," he says. "Then the nurses, who touched her and were with her less than the caregivers, and then the doctors, who touched her and were with her less than the nurses, and so on."
Clendinen decided shortly after his mother's first stroke to collect the stories of several residents and staff into a book, so he became a semiresident of Canterbury, spending 400 nights there over several years. He calls that period with his mother a kind of gift that helped him resolve his differences with her and transformed their relationship. "The more elemental the relationship became, the closer I had to come in order to really communicate with her -- and, I think, the more we felt at ease. I was drawn into an intimacy that I otherwise wouldn't have achieved, and I'm very glad for it.
"If you can be a caregiver," he adds, "I think it makes you a warmer and more humble and understanding person all the rest of your life."
Read the full interview with Dudley Clendinen.