Maybe life is just a BINGO game…

Some of the most vivid memories from my childhood involve donuts.

Not just any donuts… but those sweet treats from Winchell’s Donuts. My favorite were the cake donuts with chocolate frosting and multi-colored sprinkles.

Courtesy: Adobe Stock

When you are a child, waking up to discover a box filled with sugary delights on the kitchen table…well… it is almost better than Christmas!

You might ask, ‘What in the world does Winchell’s Donuts have to do with caregiving?’ My answer to that? Nothing and everything.

However, I didn’t realize the everything part until the final months of my mother’s life. Now, as I approach the one year mark since my mother’s death I am gaining a new understanding.

Sometimes, we don’t recognize priceless nuggets of what made our parents tick… until after they are gone

The truth is, not only do we sometimes overlook traits and qualities, we may also be unaware of declining health matters. Not because we don’t care. Rather, we just don’t know what to be on the lookout for.

That is why I’m sharing this story with you. Much of it is woven into the fabric of the woman who was Nellie Pearl Yarbough …my mother. She was 90 when she passed.

The Keeping it REAL Caregiving newsletter is not just news and information. It is also a journey; a story. Be sure to SUBSCRIBE to get every issue delivered right to your in-box…

What is love?

That’s an open-ended question. It occurs to me that love comes in many different forms, shapes and sizes.

I am convinced that in my mother’s case, one expression of her love for her family and children was delivered in small boxes of DONUTS which materialized in our kitchen from time to time. Let me explain…

Who yelled B-I-N-G-O?

As far back as I can remember, my mother played BINGO. No, let me make this clear: she didn’t just play BINGO – she LOVED playing BINGO!

As a military wife, my mother would head off to the BINGO hall at Travis, Air Force Base, California.

Several times a week I recall mom putting on a nicer outfit, dabbing on a bit of lipstick (my mother never wore make-up) spritzing on a light hint of Chanel Nº5 perfume (her favorite), then made her way to find out if lady-luck was by her side.

Years later I discovered Miss Nellie had BINGO-specific friends, like Doris.

Doris & Nellie/2016

The two stayed in touch over the decades. I coordinated a meet and greet in 2016; the last time the women would see each other.

More on this unique long-distance friendship in future newsletters. Pay attention – you can learn a great deal about your elders in the small things…

When my mother won at BINGO, sometimes the prize could be as much as several hundred dollars. That’s BIG!

You see, I grew up middle-class. In all honestly, probably lower-middle class. To this day, I swear I can’t figure out how my father and mother made ends meet on my dad’s military salary. Suffice to say, there was NOT disposable income being tossed about.

So yeah, my mother LOVED playing BINGO – ESPECIALLY when she won! Over the years, there were mugs, book bags, placemats, keychains, t-shirts… all adorned with BINGO and cute sayings.

Did you know, some hard-cord BINGO players even have a code of ethics they adhere to? Well, at least that’s what one of mom’s favorite t-shirts seemed to indicate. The Ten Commandments of BINGO – good stuff!

So now… the DONUTS. Those fried doughy treats appeared on the mornings after a night of BINGO playing.

Us kids somehow deduced the night must have netted BIG winnings when the kitchen table sported a 24-count box of DONUTS — glazed, cakes, chocolate, twists – oooohhhhhh – just glorious!

Even now, I cannot pass a Winchell’s Donut shop without thinking about my childhood, my mother and B-I-N-G-O.

Playing the cards

As Miss Nellie aged, she continued to play BINGO, but those games shifted to mornings and afternoons at her local senior center.

The winnings dwindled from a large cash pot, to maybe a coupon for a free sandwich or a discount at the nearby Chipotle.

Those outings seemed to provide some avenue for getting out of the house and interacting with others.

(Although, when we first signed up at the senior center she said, “I don’t want to be around all those old people!” Go figure…)

Forms of dementia

Little did I understand the role BINGO would play for our family as my mother approached her final years.

I wish I had understood more about the definitions of dementia, the causes, symptoms and how it impacts people. Not to mention – the signs to be on the lookout for.

Doctors never formally diagnosed my mother with dementia, but as I learn more, I am convinced this was at play in her decline.

There are many forms of dementia and it is not only Alzheimer’s Disease which can lead to this. You can find a range of information through The Alzheimer’s Association and I encourage you to visit and begin to educate yourselves, early!

Numbers in the sky

By the time Miss Nellie reached 89, her ability to feed herself and eat was rapidly diminishing, but she wanted to “do for herself” as long as she could.

One night at dinner, she sat in her wheelchair; eyes closed. Then she began pushing an imaginary something around on what appeared to be an imaginary grid.

With one hand in the air making patterns and eyes tightly squeezed shut, she began blurting out BINGO numbers: B6…I22…N33…G45, O67…

I watched her – with fear and curiosity. I didn’t know what to do, but I also knew I wanted to have the image etched into my mind for future reference.

Then, with eyes still closed she asked if I could see the winning line? It was right there? Didn’t I see it?? Why was I being so difficult when clearly she had the winning BINGO card!!?? IT WAS RIGHT THERE!!!

She was angry I could not see her cards. I will never forget watching my mother slip into that world in her mind; a world only she could see. But a world that was as real to her as any BINGO table she ever sat at in her life.

More than a game

I’ve now had months to think about these moments.

I question – how much did that world of BINGO serve as a safe sanctuary for Miss Nellie?

  • A place where good memories had not aged?

  • Where opportunity for fun prizes and interacting with friends lived on?

  • Where maybe her children were still little kids anticipating DONUTS?

  • Where she was perhaps a younger woman who could still care for herself and feel independent and in control?

  • Where she was caring for me… instead of the other way around?

Winning Numbers

Miss Nellie, 2020

One of the last times my mother played bingo she joined fellow residents at her senior care facility. No longer mobile, her wheelchair allowed her to reach the table for play, while still supporting her neck and head.

The BINGO pieces were large plastic bottle caps serving as BINGO markers, placed on oversized laminated cards. And the winnings? A trio-packet of Kleenex from the dollar store; sometimes maybe a soft piece of sugar-free candy.

Even so, Miss Nellie was able to excitedly call out a winning BINGO!

BINGO. A timeless board game. A seemingly harmless mode of gambling. A lifeline of entertainment for a wife and mother. A doorway to a more profound mental condition. A final representation of ‘’winning.”

For me, BINGO will forever represent Miss Nellie in a happier time.

Does your elder or loved one have a favorite pastime? Have you asked them WHY they enjoy the activity and what it means to them?

I would LOVE to hear some your experiences regarding what you are learning by paying attention to those activities and share YOUR stories. Email me at: [email protected].

I bet, you’ll find a priceless memory!