Revive Our Hearts Podcast

When a Parent Needs Your Care

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Dannah Gresh: In caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, Holly Elliff says pouring your heart out to God is very important.

Holly Elliff: Sometimes the hardest thing is to get really honest with the Lord, but not stay there so that you open the door to Him and say, “I’m dying here. I mean, this is so hard. I cannot do it.” But then you open the door to the Lord and say, “What do I need? What are You going to do?” Because we have promises from Him.

Leslie Basham: This is the Revive Our Hearts podcast with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, along with Dannah Gresh, for September 24, 2019.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Well, all this month on Revive Our Hearts, we’ve been exploring some of the different areas of life where we find ourselves having to decide whether or not we’re going to trust God to write our story. Life often doesn’t go the way we think it should or wish it would, so we have to trust the Divine ScriptWriter.

Over the past few weeks we’ve listened as various women have shared areas where they find their faith being stretched and tested.

We heard from Charmaine Porter who’s trusting God even though He hasn’t given her a husband or children.

We heard from Kimberly Wagner, a wife who’s learning to trust the Lord as she cares for her disabled husband.

We listened to Erin Davis, a mom whose sons were diagnosed with serious bladder and kidney problems before they were even born and how she had to surrender to God’s will for those boys regardless of what that might look like.

And then last week we heard the moving story of Kerry Tittle who suddenly lost her husband and two daughters in a catastrophic tornado. Like Job, she’s learning to say, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Wow! Each one is a unique situation with its own particular kind of suffering. But these women all have one thing in common: They all have to determine, “Am I going to shake my fist in God’s face? Will I protest and stay angry at my circumstances? Or am I going to trust that God is good and that He knows what He’s up to?”

If you missed any of this month-long series on “Trusting God to Write Your Story,” you can find all of those programs at our website,www.ReviveOurHearts.com.

Now, today’s guest is no stranger to us here at Revive Our Hearts. My very longtime friend Holly Elliff is a pastor’s wife. She’s a mom. And here in more recent years she’s also fulfilled an important role as a caregiver for parents who were suffering from Dementia. That’s a hard, hard job with no immediate tangible rewards.

Recently, Dannah Gresh sat down with Holly to talk about what it looked like to care for parents with Alzheimer’s Disease. Let’s listen.

Dannah: Holly, you’ve not been through this journey, not one time, but two times.

Holly: Two times, right. When I was in my mid-30s, I was pregnant with our fourth child, and Billy’s dad left, divorced his mom, and she was very strange after that. We thought it was grieving, but it wasn’t grieving. It was Alzheimer’s.

So we were the ones that lived in the same city with her, and that was about a four-year journey with her from the point where it appeared that she was just anxious and then as it got more progressive.

One day I got a phone call from her hairdresser where she had been going for twenty years, and she said, “Your mom left here, but she was really confused.” And then a few minutes later I got a phone call from a strange woman who said, “There’s this little old lady parked on the street who can’t remember where her house is.”

So I drove the hour into Oklahoma City and found her, and we took her home.

Dannah: How old were you at this point?

Holly: That was mid-30s.

Dannah: So when were those signs confirmed as a diagnosis with Alzheimer’s?

Holly: Right after the hairdresser incident, when she couldn’t find her way home to the home where she had lived in for twenty years. So it was no longer grief and anxiety, and we discovered that she did have Alzheimer’s. She had a really fast-track type of Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know at that beginning point that Alzheimer’s had so many different faces.

So Mom Elliff’s Alzheimer’s was really rapid. She had the hallucinations and delusions. So she would be calling the police at 2 a.m. thinking that somebody was trying to break into her house.

For a while—because we had kids at that point already—for a while, one of us slept in her little condo that was right around the corner from our house. One of us stayed home, and then we would swap nights. We had a lady that came in during the day, but a lot of times she’d have to call us because she couldn’t figure out what to do.

So that was really an education phase for me in the whole subject of, not only care . . . I was already a caregiver because I had kids, but Alzheimer’s is a whole different ball game.

Dannah: How do you possibly split your heart between caring for, this would be your husband’s mother, and your children at home?

Holly: It’s really tough. It’s very hard. I have Elisabeth Elliot’s voice in my head. I got to hear her share when I was a young mom, and her point was: You cannot live your life if you do not know how to go to the Lord and say, “What is the next right thing?”

And, literally, I have spent my life saying to the Lord, “You’re going to have to show me what is the next right thing,” because my life has been very full. So that was a moment where I began to realize that this is not something I can do. I could not have done it in my own strength. And the Lord taught me that more later as I cared for my mom when she had Alzheimer’s.

Dannah: So how many years between Billy’s mom and your mom?

Holly: Well, let’s see—I have to rate everything by who I was pregnant with. (laughter)

Dannah: Because how many were there?

Holly: I have eight children, and now we’re working on grandbaby number eighteen, but at that point, I was pregnant with my fourth child who was actually born on Mom Elliff’s birthday two months after she died. So when we started that journey, I had not found out I was pregnant yet. We had number four.

With my mom, my youngest child was nine years old. We still had seven of our eight at home. And our first grandson was born two months after mother moved in with us.

Dannah: Wow.

Were the signs with your mom different with the signs you had with Billy’s mom?

Holly: Yes. Mother’s was just more general confusion. It scared me to death when I realized she’d still been driving around Nashville, Tennessee. She could do that, but in other areas, she was totally, totally confused. So when I started driving back and forth to Nashville from Little Rock, where we were at that point, I would leave on Thursday, drive to Nashville, spend three days there, take care of everything, set up things that they needed, and then I’d drive back home.

One time when I was there, Mother was working on paying bills. She left them all over the counter. I started picking up the bills and holding them up to the light. I realized some of them had no checks in them. Some of them had blank signed checks in them. Some of them had checks that were made out to the wrong place.

Dannah: Oh my. Wow.

Holly: But she could still sit down and have a conversation with you, and you would not know, initially, that anything was wrong.

Dannah: Did you know initially? I mean, you’d been through Alzheimer’s once before, so did the warning signs look familiar enough that you had suspicion?

Holly: Yes. We knew pretty early on that Mother was slipping into Dementia. We went and had an MRI done. Back then they would look for these tangles in your brain that would indicate that there’s a problem there. There is no confirmed way to diagnose Alzheimer’s unless you do an autopsy, so what you do is look at the symptoms.

There are now multiple types of Alzheimer’s and Dementia—Louie Bodies. There’s fast-track Alzheimer’s, and there’s the more slow-paced Alzheimer’s that my mom had. And they’re very, very different.

Billy’s mom would have hallucinations and delusions and talk to herself in the mirror. When we were taking turns spending the night there, sometimes she would call me in the middle of the night and say, “There’s a man sleeping on my couch.” 

And I would say, “Well, you know, that’s Billy. He’s there with you tonight. I’m home.”

Dannah: Wow. How scary that must have been. Was she frightened when she called you?

Holly: Oh, absolutely. Terrified. She would call the police, if there were firecrackers or something going off, and tell them someone was attacking her house. So there was a lot of drama in that.

Dannah: So it’s not just that they’re slipping away, but that you’re watching them face terrifying emotions and grief, sadness.

Holly: Right.

Dannah: They’re emotionally just a wreck.

Holly: Right.

So that was one end of the scale. My mom’s was very slow and progressive. The day of my second daughter’s wedding, my sister called me and said, “Dad has gone in the hospital in Nashville.” Mother was already on the way to Little Rock with my niece to come to the wedding. We knew that she had Alzheimer’s at that point, and my sister called me and said, “You know, she can’t go back home because she can’t be at home by herself, and I’m in the hospital with Dad.”

So that day we finished the wedding. We came home. We rearranged kids all over our house, and made a bedroom for Mom, and she never went back home again. I did drive her back and forth to Nashville to see Daddy, but basically from then on she lived with us.

Dannah: So you really didn’t have time to even think about your life changing dramatically.

Holly: No. My kids were, like, 9, 11, 13, 15—those age ranges—up to 20. It was just something that God plopped in our life that we did not know was coming, that we didn’t expect.

My dad died by that next Christmas. Mother moved in in September. So, three or four months later, my dad was in heaven, and Mom was with us. So it was . . . I use the term “insane” a lot, describing my own life because so much of my life had been moments that I had no idea were coming. I never knew I was going to have eight kids. I didn’t know I was going to deal with Alzheimer’s twice in my life. So we’ve had surprises.

Dannah: So with that dramatic adjustment in your life, you had a real learning curve in terms of, “How do I do this?” And, at the same time, all these emotions running through your head of, “Emotionally, how do I do this?”

I have friends whose parents are diagnosed, those first few weeks seem to be the hardest in terms of emotions and adjusting their lives. What kind of encouragement would you have for them?

Holly: Well, my life has had a lot of surprises. Over the years of learning to trust the Lord in that . . . In fact, one time it was about 2 o’clock one morning, and I was just wasted. It had been a really hard day, and I wrote this little thought, and it’s called, “Thoughts on Giving Yourself Away.” And I wrote this:

I’m thinking tonight about those of you who are caregivers. I know that every day you dwell on the fringes of the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps you’re facing literal death or some facet of lingering, progressive death (which is what Alzheimer’s seems to be).

And then I wrote a paragraph . . . As a pastor’s wife, I knewwomen that were in all different types of life stories that were random and hard and difficult. So this next paragraph—these are all people that I knew that were going through these things:

Lungs that struggle to expand but cannot. Arms and legs that refuse to cooperate with the commands of the brain. Lips that can no longer call your name. The unnamed issue with your last mammogram. A child in pain with no answer in sight. The discipline of repeating heart-wrenching tasks day after day for your loved one, tasks that will continue to increase month after month. The strong man you loved is now constantly in need of your help for every task. Your heart is broken for your child as you become mom for a grandchild who is alone. Your time, energy, and faith are all stretched thin.

You may be struggling to remember that God is good and wise, and that His ways are perfect, for you are so weary. God Himself understands your struggle. He has known loss and grief and suffering. He knows the emotions that assault you every day, and He is touched and moved by your need. He has stored for you the provision He knew you would need for these days, these months, or these years. He is present with you in all of them, and He will not abandon you. He knows. He sees. He cares. He is still with you always.

Dannah: Wow. Holly, even as you read that, I can hear the emotion in your voice. You are acquainted with that.

Holly: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

Dannah: You wrote that for others while you were on the verge of that cliff, that valley of the shadow of death.

Holly: Yes. And when I have met with somebody who is really struggling, sometimes I’ll just pull this up and send it to them as a reminder that this is the truth. Scripture over and over reminds us of that truth. And, honestly, part of what kept me being able to function during those years was the fact that God had reminded over and over of His truth. It became so precious to me.

I have this little Bible that I carry in my car all the time because if we were at a doctor’s appointment, or I was picking up Depends for my mom, or taking Billy’s mom to the hairdresser where she was going to put on somebody else’s glasses and I thought she’d had a stroke when we left because she couldn’t walk because she couldn’t see and then later we had to resolve that . . .

The Lord over and over would give me promises. Like Psalm 144, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war,” because it did feel like a battle so many times in these circumstances that I was in. “He trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle; my lovingkindness and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge” (vv. 1–2).

And that illustration there, it’s the picture of a Roman army when they would take their huge shields and cover the men so that nothing could penetrate there.

I had a little plaque that sits on my kitchen counter with this verse on it, and there were so many times when I knew, apart from that shield, that covering of the Lord, that I could not do what I was in the middle of.

Dannah: So the changing of the diapers, the dressing, all the appointments, and juggling your own children, were there ever days when it was hard to believe those words?

Holly: Oh, absolutely.

Dannah: What did one of the hardest days look like?

Holly: Well, one day that’s still very vividly in my memory was probably about four years in to my mom being here. She was not living in her house anymore because we couldn’t keep her from roaming the neighborhood. Neighbors were finding her and bringing her back to her house.

Dannah: When you say that, that sounds really scary, but you say it with almost, there’s a little bit of almost a giggle in you.

Holly: (laughter) Well, one day she walked right past our house and waved at me and kept going, and I thought, Okay, we’re in trouble here.

Dannah: Oh my.

Holly: She lived right down the street for a while—she had a helper there. But her cycle to our house was every seven minutes, day and night. So we never locked our front door because I would wake up in the middle of the night with my mom’s face about two inches from me saying, “Are you asleep?” 

I’d say, “Well, I was.” 

Then I’d walk her back home and tell the caregiver she’d escaped.

Dannah: Just like having a child again.

Holly: It was funny. She still had a sense of humor.

Dannah: She did?

Holly: She did. My mom did.

Dannah: You saw that come through?

Holly: For a long time, yes.

But this particular day we were about four years in, and it had just been a really, really tough day. I was overwhelmed with the stuff I needed to do with my kids. We also homeschooled, so it was very full. And I’m a pastor’s wife.

So I really thought, Lord, do You know what You’re doing here, because this is, like, impossible.

I have to get outside when I need to hear the Lord. I need to get where I can see what He created. Billy was home, so I drove down the street, got out at a park, sat on a picnic table that faced the river (Arkansas is beautiful). I was just sitting there pouring out my complaints to the Lord and saying, “I’m sorry. I know You’re up there somewhere, but this is impossible. I cannot do this”

Dannah: Good for you.

Holly: This little motor boat putted by right in front of me, and the Lord said, “You know, if you had been there that day when there was a storm on the sea, and I said to you, ‘Come to Me. Get out of the boat and come to Me,’ would you have come?” 

And I said to the Lord, “I don’t know. That’s a really hard question because I don’t want to be where I am right now.” And I didn’t. And He knew that.

But just a minute later, this song popped in my head—there was no big, audible voice from heaven or anything like that—but a song popped in my head, the tune and the words. I’m a singer. I love music. And here are the words:

Sink or swim, live or die.
I believe You reign on high.
I believe Your Word is true.
I believe You love me, too.

And it had two or three verses. I wrote them all down. But it was like the Lord was saying to me, “What do you already know?” And I did know those things. And the Lord poured into me hope that if He was who He said He was, and He had put this in my life, then He was going to lead me, direct me, be with me in it.

Dannah: Wow! I hear two beautiful things in that illustration. First, you were honest with God.

I think there are times in our lives where things are so off course, and the story God’s writing in our lives is so painful and difficult, that we have to override our false and untruthful belief that we have to bring to God neat and orderly and good prayers. Sometimes we just need to spill and scatter what’s in us. And that’s okay, right?

Holly: It is okay. I think especially, as a long-term caregiver or even . . . I’ve been helping a single mom this week who just had to have open-heart surgery, and she is desperate so many times.

I think there are places in our life that are so tight that if we don’t acknowledge to the Lord where we are, all we do is close ourselves in, and then He does not have access to our spirit to be able to feed us and give us what we need. And that’s where I was that day.

Dannah: You got honest.

One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes, and this is going to be Dannah’s paraphrase, is, “Bring to God what is in you, not what should be.”

So many times in our Christian walk we think, I’m supposed to say these words, when our emotions . . . We just want to barf out the ugly stuff that’s inside of us. And you did that.

Holly: Yes. Right.

Dannah: But the second thing that you did is you trusted God.

Holly: Yes. I think sometimes the hardest thing is to get really honest with the Lord but not stay there so that you open the door to Him and say, “I’m dying here. I mean, this is so hard. I cannot do it.” But then you open the door to the Lord and say, “What do I need? What are You going to do?” Because we have promises from Him that He will be with us and that He is going to give us what we need.

When Romans 5 talks about grace, it’s the grace in which we stand. So it’s with us all the time. It’s wherever we are moving. God’s grace is available to us. So those truths are the things that keep us free in the midst of really dark places.

Dannah: In the storm. I think if we pour out our complaints to God without then saying, “Okay, but my story is Yours, I choose to trust You with how You will write it,” it’s a very incomplete and selfish act to just throw it out.

Holly: Right.

Dannah: So you got in the Word. You said, “These are the things You’ve written.” Boy, Holly, that picture of that boat and God asking you the question, “Would you step out into the stormy seas with Me?” And you chose, literally, to do that, that day.

Holly: Yes. Not that I would have chosen the stormy seas at all, because I never would have. Honestly, when I was in my twenties, my biggest struggle was, “Do I have all my makeup on or are my eyelashes straight?”

Dannah: You were a beauty queen—literally—a gorgeous beauty queen.

Holly: My picture of life was very, very simple, but the focus was me. The Lord was determined that I was not going to stay there, and He’s done a really good job at that.

Dannah: He rescued you.

Holly: Yes—rescued me from that.

Nancy: And what sweet fruit everybody who knows Holly has seen in her life as a result of her willingness to trust God to write her story.

There’s something about having to care for the very parents who once cared for us that epitomizes unselfishness and love. But it’s still not easy, is it?

We’ve been listening to the first part of a conversation between my dear friends Dannah Gresh and Holly Elliff. We’ll catch the rest of their discussion tomorrow here on Revive Our Hearts.

It can be encouraging to realize that you’re not the only one feeling this way. Others have been there, done this. That’s why here in the month of September we’ve been sharing the stories of women who have walked through some really difficult circumstances. It’s also why my husband Robert and I interviewed many different people when we were writing our brand new book, You Can Trust God to Write Your Story.

We’d love to send this book to you as our way of saying “thank you” for a donation of any amount to Revive Our Hearts this month. You can contact us online atReviveOurHearts.com, or you can give us a call at 1–800–569–5959. 

And when you reach out to make your gift, be sure and ask us to send you our new book on trusting God to write your story. It’s our way of saying “thank you” for supporting Revive Our Hearts.

Well, if you’re caring for an elderly parent, you may be wondering, Should I say goodbye to my mother or my father before it’s too late? Holly Elliff addresses that question tomorrow. Be sure and be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Reminding you that your life’s focus shouldn’t be you, Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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