By Ross Schriftman
Author, Writer, Producer and Former Caregiver
And finally the end comes. The one we loved so much dies. The one we cared for is no longer with us. So what happens next? How can we go on?
At age 82, my blessed mother, Shirley, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I became her primary care giver and, with the help of our wonderful live-in companion Nora, I kept Mom at home as she had made me promise I would years earlier. It was a struggle. It was stressful. But at times it was actually joyful when my mom would say something funny or remember some sweet memory of her past. Many involved me and my brothers and some involved other family and friends.
After two years of watching her decline, the end did come. Nora, who grieved along with me, went on to care for other people. I went home to an almost empty house. I was fortunate that mom had guilted me into taking in two surviving animals from the Katrina Hurricane disaster; a dog she named Happy Girl and a blind cat she named Helen Keller. They would be and still are my companions. They are the gifts Mom left behind for me.
When we take on the role of care givers for a loved one our focus is on the person we are caring for and how we can cope with care giving. But what happens after?
My Rabbi, Lance Sussman at Keneseth Israel, describes the loss of a loved one as a hole in you that will always be there. So what can we do with that hole and what happens to the rest of us?
Everyone deals with loss in different ways. Some losses are sudden and shocking such as an accident or a heart attack. In these cases, people might regret that they did not get a chance to say good bye or to make amends for a conflict with their loved ones. That can be so painful.
Other deaths occur as a long declining progression such as I experienced with Alzheimer’s. In my case, I grieved along the way. First, I grieved when Mom lost her ability to reason. Then she had difficulty communicating. She began to have trouble walking and then difficulty eating and finally trouble swallowing. When she died I was surprised that I was not overwhelmed with grieve. But I had done so much of it already. I did miss her and still do.
While she was in the late stages of her illness I began to write about her life and all the wonderful things we did along the way. This was certainly helpful to me. She was a remarkable person. She headed the Soviet Jewry Committee at Congregation Rodeph Shalom and helped families settle here in Philadelphia. She taught English As A Second Language to immigrants and helped them prepare for their citizenship tests. She co-founded the Bucks Mont Chapter of Parents without Partners and ran for local district justice. She loved to dance, sing, garden, teach, write and care for her pets. She had many friends and was always interested in them and supportive of their dreams. She lived Tikkun Olam by helping one person at a time. Mother Teresa once said, “There are no great things that we do…only small things with great love.” That was how my mom lived her life.
Writing her memoir was easy. The chapters flowed out on the page. I continued writing during my Shiva time sitting in her TV and Film library room for days (she loved movies). Don’t worry. I took breaks to eat, go for a run or walk and to sleep.
The memoir became my book: My Million Dollar Mom. My goal was, not only to tell her story, but to show what it is like caring for someone with Alzheimer’s and how I came through the experience successfully to fulfill her wishes and became a better person. I also began speaking to support groups at Assisted Living communities, Adult Day Care centers and local service organizations. I encouraged other care givers and listened to their experiences as well. I believe it was helpful to them and helpful to me as well.
Soon after the book was published, the idea of a film version came to me. I would be driving down the road and a song would play on the radio. It would remind me of an endearing time or funny incident with my mom and I thought, “That would be a great scene for a movie.”
So I learned how to write a script. (My last name actually means “script man.”) I hired a script coach, a film consultant and now I have a whole team of partners including the Alzheimer’s Association-Delaware Valley Chapter and the Filmmakers Collaborative. Our cast and crew are preparing for production. If we get enough funding in the next two months, we will begin production this summer.
Our goal is to provide another avenue to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s as our nation works to find a cure. Another goal is to show that people with Alzheimer’s have value and can be helpful to others. We plan to include cast members with moderate dementia in our production so that they can contribute to the film’s success.
On a personal level, the film is a way for me to bring back to life some part of my mom as a living memorial that I will always have. I am at peace that she is under God’s eternal care, that I was blessed to have had her as my mom. I can continue living a meaningful life with joy and caring for others as my mom would have wanted me to. In this way I am dealing with the “hole” in my life in a positive way. I pray that others can also have that same peace and joy for themselves as they grieve for those they loved.