Wally turned out to be everything his foster Karen said he was and more: an incredibly sweet little guy who loves all people and dogs; calm most of the time, yet super bouncy and energetic when he’s ready to play; remarkably quiet, unless he feels like he’s not getting enough attention; and so loving and loyal to us, his new family.
Karen did a great job potty training Wally, so aside from a handful of accidents in the first few weeks, we successfully skipped that hurdle of new dog ownership. Our only challenge was that Karen had allowed him to sleep in her bed, so he repeatedly tried to join Aaron and me in ours the first few nights, but eventually got the memo and learned to settle into his dog bed in our room.
I figured January would be a slow month after the holidays when I could really focus on getting to know Wally and establishing a new routine with him. I was wrong.
My mom contracted Covid at her memory care facility, and my stepdad and I heard the news from her on the phone before we ever heard anything from the facility. She isn’t the most reliable source, so we were left wondering if she really had it or not until we could get ahold of the head nurse. It turned out she had indeed tested positive during regular testing of the entire facility—and was luckily asymptomatic—but for some reason it took them nearly 24 hours to contact us, her family, and let us know.
That was the cherry on top of a huge pile of grievances we had with that facility, and we decided then and there she needed to move ASAP.
Moving is stressful for anyone, but especially for someone with dementia who needs to be in familiar surroundings to feel secure and grounded. The first time we moved her into memory care, in January 2021, it took her about three months to settle in. That period was extremely stressful for her and for us, with many phone calls and visits that ended in tears on both ends. I was not looking forward to going through that again, but we knew it was for the best.
I chose that initial facility under impossible circumstances, in a pre-vaccine world when we weren’t allowed to go inside most facilities to tour them in person, when I was desperate to give my stepdad some relief from being a 24/7 caregiver, and desperate to help my mom—who had lost an alarming amount of weight and struggled with paranoid delusions at home—in any way I could.
I don’t blame myself for choosing the wrong place, but I did see this new move as a way to right that wrong.
I started from scratch all over again, calling every memory care facility I could find on the Eastside and gathering all the information about availability, pricing, activities and more. I narrowed the options down to six—a mix of assisted living/memory care, dedicated memory care and adult family homes—and scheduled three intensive days of in-person tours and assessments.
The thing about memory care (and I supposed regular assisted living) is that you can’t get the full picture of how much it will cost each month unless you do an assessment with the facility’s nurse, where they ask all sorts of questions to determine the level of care a person will need. The higher the level of care, the higher the cost, on top of the monthly rent for the room itself.
For example, a room in memory care might run $4,000 per month in rent, but care might start at $3,000 per month for a low-needs person and go up from there if they need more assistance dressing, bathing, eating, etc. There’s also a one-time “community fee” due upon move-in that can be $1,500 to $5,500 or more, which really makes it painful to move.
(Is this the first time you’re realizing how much memory care costs? Did you know most families have to pay out-of-pocket? In the Seattle area, $7,000-$10,000+ per month is the norm. Here’s your nudge to make sure your parents have long-term care insurance!)
Because cost was a decision-making factor for us, I scheduled the tours and assessments together so we could walk away from each facility knowing exactly how much it would cost—which was super efficient, but made for three very long and exhausting days. We’d do one tour and assessment in the morning, eat lunch, then do another in the afternoon. Talking with strangers about the specifics of your mom’s terminal illness for an hour twice a day is draining. Touring sad little hallways filled with people who aren’t sure where or who they are is heartbreaking. Trying to decide where your mom is going to live—and quite possibly die—is… I can’t think of the right word, but it fucking sucks.
After the last appointment of each day, I had about a 45-minute drive home by myself when I’d blast loud, happy music and drink in all the lovely sights of the world—puffy clouds, streaks of sunset—and transport myself from the land of the dying back to the land of the living.
And when I got home, there was Wally.
Not to say that I didn’t find comfort in Aaron and Evie, but dogs bring a different sort of joy. They’re invariably, unabashedly, ridiculously thrilled to see you each time you walk in the door. They give amazing, furry snuggles. They don’t ask questions, however well-intended, that might make you cry.
Sweet Wally came right when I needed him most.
The great thing about this journey to find a new place for my mom was that she came with us on all these tours. Last time, my stepdad and I peeked into memory care windows and talked to facility directors without her, worried that she would get confused or freaked out by the process.
This time, she was ready to get the hell out of her old place and was thrilled to see all these new places. She had definite opinions on which places she did and didn’t like, and best of all: the winning place was a clear, unanimous, enthusiastic yes from all three of us.
We chose a dedicated memory care facility, which has three floors that my mom can move about freely, including a secure outdoor garden area she can access at any time. It’s clean and bright and cheerful, with friendly and helpful staff that seem happy to be there. It was the only place that brought me to tears as we toured it; the only place where it felt like she could really live, not just exist, before she dies.
It was such a relief to choose this wonderful new place in early February and give notice to her old facility, making plans to move her in March. And then! Evie got Covid.
It was inevitable, since Covid seemed to rip through her elementary school after the holidays. Luckily, she was fully vaccinated and only had a day or two of mild cold symptoms, and Aaron and I somehow never had symptoms or tested positive. Still, it was another challenge to have her be home and contagious while Aaron and I tried to keep her busy and keep up with our work, plus quarantine ourselves. Walking Wally (while wearing a mask) was my only escape.
In March, my mom’s move went as well as it could go. It took us from very early morning to late evening, but we got her completely moved in and set up in her new space. Unlike last time, when we had to direct people through the window on where to place her furniture, my stepdad, brother and I were able to set up everything just how she liked it. I carefully made her bed and folded her clothes. My brother organized her bookshelves and placed her framed photos just so. It felt amazingly redemptive to do it right this time.
And then I figured life would be good for awhile, having accomplished this herculean task that consumed the first few months of the year.
But remember the three-month settling period I mentioned last time we moved my mom? It was hard this time, too.
Despite the fact that we knew this place was such an improvement from the last one—better food, nicer people, brighter and more beautiful surroundings—my mom still had her complaints. It was after a few of these unhappy phone calls that I realized no place would satisfy because the real problem wasn’t the place; it was the dementia. And there was no place I could move her and nothing I could do to fix that.
I realized this in the midst of a session with my therapist. “All solutions with dementia are imperfect,” she said. I wrote that down because I have to accept that as badly as I want to make things right for my mom, there’s only so much I can do.
As much as I hoped this move would improve things, the satisfaction I got from it was short-lived. I got so caught up in the doing, and didn’t anticipate the rush of sadness that would fill me once the doing was done.
I desperately looked forward to the first day of spring, craving literal sunshine to brighten up life. And wouldn’t you know, we had the gloomiest, rainiest Seattle spring in a decade.
But Wally got me outside three times a day regardless. We walked and walked, rain or (rare and blessed) shine. We went to the off-leash dog park any time it wasn’t too rainy or muddy, and I loved watching him goad bigger dogs into chasing him around in big circles. He kept me moving in a season when I wanted to get back into a regular running routine, but just couldn’t bring myself to endure the rain when I wasn’t training for anything.
It also made such a difference to wake up each morning to his little face peeking up at me from my bedside; to have his constant companionship throughout mundane days working at home; and to have his quiet, loving presence in the room during my biweekly therapy sessions. He’s not an emotional support animal, but he manages to be more than just a dog, too.
Maybe part of it is that Wally has given me the opportunity to save him in ways I can’t save my mom. She had to leave her home; I took Wally into mine. I can derive daily satisfaction from meeting Wally’s needs by feeding, walking and playing with him; but even when I try my best to give my mom a better life—by spending quality time with her, taking her shopping, moving her to a new place—I still feel like I’ve failed her because the inherent cause of her pain remains. All solutions are imperfect.
And Aaron? Despite not wanting to get a dog in the slightest, even he had to admit early on that Wally is a pretty great dog. Over the past six months, I’ve watched Aaron go from cautiously tolerating him to actually liking him to downright loving him. He’ll swear otherwise if you ask, but he has indeed said the L-word, and you can see it plainly in the way he always sprinkles a little rice on the floor for Wally as he cooks, and chases him around the living room, and clearly enjoys it when Wally chooses to snuggle with him instead of me.
Wally brings joy to my stepdad and mom, too. He comes with me and Evie on our visits every weekend, and we take him on walks around the neighborhood and to the park. We toss his squeaky toys down the hall and laugh as he chases and pounces on them. He and Evie bring energy and levity to these visits. Together, they bring my mom firmly back to the land of the living, if only for a little while.
Now it’s summer. The days are brighter, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to remember a time before Wally was part of our family. And I hate to think of a time far in the future when he won’t be, because there will surely be a huge, Wally-shaped hole left behind.
I’ve always been a dog person and now, I think, I’ll always need a dog. I have the love to give, and I need the love they give.
I sure am grateful for his.