The Red Shirt

#3 in a Series on Purpose

“Is today the day I wear the Red Shirt?” Mom asks, as she does nearly every time I visit.

I don’t mind this question. Or the other millions of questions that repeat like a cassette stuck in an endless loop. After living in Alzheimer’s World for five years, the passage of time no longer matters.

What matters is the Red Shirt.

Earlier this year, we launched Yappy Care, a new program at the animal rescue where I volunteer. Twice a month, we bring a shelter dog to visit the residents at mom’s memory care home. As team captain, mom walks the dog down hallways and patios, stopping to socialize with her friends.

And she wears the Red Shirt, the official uniform of a shelter volunteer.

The Red Shirt reminds her that she has a purpose. Helping others has been a guiding principle in both our lives, a code she instilled in me at an early age. And, it reminds me that even as dementia slowly strips her soul bare, she is still capable of living a meaningful life.

As Bob DeMarco so eloquently reminds us in his Alzheimer’s Reading Room blog:

“Success is what happens to you. Purpose is what happens through you. Meaningfulness is what you give away to others.”

The Meaning of Life

#2 in a Series on Purpose

Purpose: the essential ingredient for a meaningful life. For years, it’s seemed out of reach.

In a sales career spanning a quarter-century, my purpose was straightforward yet unfulfilling: make your numbers, get your bonus. My wallet was full but I struggled with an empty soul.

Life changed radically when I left that job to become my mother’s full-time caregiver five years ago. I spent much of that time wallowing in martyrdom and resentment, my purpose unfathomable.

But purpose, like life, evolves with clarity. And as I’ve learned in sobriety, helping others is a reward in itself. So I launch a support group for daughters caring for aging parents. Channel a long-time passion for writing into a flash blog and caregiving articles. Transform my love of animals into enrichment programs at a local shelter and a petsitting business. And continue to support my husband as he deals with the sudden loss of his only child.

Age grants us wrinkles and wisdom and this I now know: purpose is found when you least seek it.

Lipstick on a Cat?

#1 in a Series on Purpose

It begins with Princess.

“I need your help, mom,” I tell her. “Can you help me with Princess?”

I’m petsitting a client’s cat this week, my decades-long sales career replaced with a different kind of work: Alzheimer’s caregiving and, occasionally, petsitting. Finding my life’s purpose seems as elusive as my mother’s memory.

Yet as a caregiver, I’ve learned how important it is for my mother to feel helpful, so I bring her along one afternoon. As mom brushes Princess, she exclaims: “Let’s put lipstick on him!” Outside, shadows are shrinking, the cloudless winter sky lost to coppery dusk. Like clockwork, sundowning has begun.

When we return to her care home for supper, everything is forgotten—Princess, lipstick, cat toys. The earlier elation in giving my mother purpose is now replaced by the defeated ache of Alzheimer’s, too often thrust at my heart.

A few days later, mom tells me about Perky, her childhood cat and how she loves to brush him. Scrambled memories aside, her enjoyment of the moment is clear.

Sometimes I’m so focused on finding my own purpose, I forget the true joy in making someone else’s life meaningful.