As someone who knew rowing far better than caregiving, J. Keith McMullin found comfort in the simplicity of mission that is moving through the water as he approached the overwhelming task of tending to his mother who suffered from dementia.
“With every stroke, you’re correcting and setting the direction of the boat, and I thought of caregiving exactly like that,” McMullin said. “So every day, I would put the oar in the water and take one stroke — whether it was calling Medicare, ordering meds from the doctor, taking my mother to the podiatrist — but every day I did one thing.”
It was a tactic that helped him focus not only then but later as he set about writing a book about the experience.
“Writing the book was exactly the same,” he said. “I could set that rhythm of writing every night for an hour.”
Though he acknowledged, “I had no idea what it would evolve into.”
It evolved much like he did as a caregiver, and the result is “Missing Mary: A Crash Course in Alzheimer’s Dementia,” which tells the story of a son thrust unsuspectingly into the complex world of caring for loved ones with dementia and how he managed to carry it off.
McMullin, 51, who lives in Henrico County, is a health care executive by profession — not a writer — but he’s put together a highly readable account of his experience that increasing numbers of Americans are becoming familiar with. His professional background in health care program development, marketing and sales afforded him an informed, if maddening, understanding of the situation:
“While I was working to prevent disease across the country,” McMullin said, “with my own mother, there was nothing I could do to prevent or help cure her of Alzheimer’s.”
He laughed: “How do you like your irony served up? Apparently, I wanted mine served with a snow shovel.”
November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness and Family Caregivers Month, so McMullin’s story is timely and pertinent to many: The Alzheimer’s Association says more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease and 15 million others are serving as their caregivers.
Over a period of 15 years, McMullin was involved in caregiving for his father, mother and aunt, but this story revolves around his mother, Betty Compton McMullin, aka “Miss Mary” in the book title and story. His mother was a talented golfer and crafty bridge player who taught mathematics at the University of Richmond, among other places, and instructed her children in the fine art of problem-solving.
Witnessing her cognitive skills fade with the disease was sad and sobering. McMullin recounted the time he was helping pay her bills and balance her checkbook when she grew unable to subtract one number from another.
“This is the Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?” she asked her son.
As patients with dementia lose more and more of their abilities to cope with day-to-day living, more and more falls to their caregivers, many of whom, like McMullin, have families and jobs of their own to tend to. The result can leave many caregivers feeling squeezed by the competing responsibilities.
McMullin, senior development officer for Bon Secours Richmond Health Care Foundation where he works with hospice and home care, said that when someone with dementia can no longer care for themselves, the question is simple — “What do you do?” — but the answer is not.
“It can be heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s a tremendous question facing our health system as well as our society.”
McMullin’s mother died in January 2013 at age 84, and he has since spent significant time piecing together the story and his thoughts in a way that might benefit — or at least boost — someone else facing similar circumstances, particularly from the perspective of a male caregiver, which tends to be a point of view that in his experience seemed largely invisible.
His mission when he sat down to write?
“I thought, ‘If I was going to buy a beer for a buddy whose parent was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, what would I want to share?’”
McMullin’s book begins with receiving a phone call from his mother, who had fallen and been taken to a hospital emergency room, the episode that launched him into the role of caregiver.
“How do you become a caregiver?” he asked rhetorically. “By accepting the call literally and figuratively.”
He’s also a big believer in this:
“If I can do it,” he said, “you can do it.”