We take fires very seriously in Colorado after the devastating Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, and the 2013 Black Forest Fire (in picture)

We take fires very seriously in Colorado after the devastating Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, and the 2013 Black Forest Fire (in picture)


The closing lines of last week’s blog will begin this week’s post: ~ Sing a song of seasons! ~ Something bright in All! ~ Flowers in the summer, ~ Fires in the fall!

Last week’s post focused on poetry, the book of children’s poems I read aloud to Mom as she snuggled under her covers one night. Despite her dementia, Mom responded to the poems, making comments and asking to hear more. It was a surprising, happy time.

This week the focus in on the four words—Fires in the fall!—because of something that happened in Mom’s assisted living that same night…before I read her the poems.

The alarms went off. Everywhere, blaring throughout the entire assisted living facility, both floors, all four hallways. Steel safety doors automatically slammed shut, closing off all the hallways, and the alarms kept screeching. Caregivers ran to evaluate the situation. I stayed with Mom in her apartment, putting on her shoes, helping her into the wheelchair and tucking her afghan around her, waiting to learn which exit I should use to take her to safety. In the hallway outside her apartment, other more mobile and self-reliant seniors peeked out their doors and waited anxiously in the hall to learn what to do next.

Finally the alarms stopped. The steel doors opened, and caregivers hurried back to the apartments. The halls were thick with whiffs of smoke and the pungent smell of burned …popcorn? Really, burned popcorn.   Bags of microwave popcorn had been accidentally set on fire in a 90-year-old resident’s apartment microwave when he pushed the wrong numbers. Supposedly, the numbers were way off; the bags caught fire and blew the door open on the microwave.

Mom sat in the wheelchair, watching caregivers hurrying around, running back and forth past our open door. She looked up at me and asked, “Well, are we going to go now?” She was ready for us to take a walk.

The Roman philosopher Seneca said this: “There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.”   My mom’s personal philosophy has always been to not suffer or worry in advance, but to stay calmly busy with other things until there was an actual danger that demanded a specific response. She could have been a poster girl for the 1939 British motivational poster in preparation for WWII: “Keep Calm & Carry On.”

Life can be very difficult. Losing the love of your life to Alzheimer’s; losing your own clarity of time and place to dementia; giving up your home and independence; outliving most of your family and friends; thinking you’re getting ready to go for a wheelchair ride, only to have that ended by fire alarms…and you don’t even get any popcorn.

October 9 is Fire Prevention Day. I’m informing you early, so you can prepare in advance to prevent fires…and to make the most of whatever difficulties and disappointments you might face. Keep Calm and Read Poetry. Popcorn is optional, especially if you’re not sure how to use a microwave.

calm duck on water

moon between trees

Based on the 1939 British motivational poster in preparation for WWII.

Based on the 1939 British motivational poster in preparation for WWII.


Filed under autumn lessons, Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life, making a difference, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations

61 responses to “SOUND THE ALARMS!

  1. Molly

    I am so thankful that it was not a “real” fire. How scary, my mom and grandma both there. Although, I do think it would have been fun to see your adrenaline kick in, and carry grandma down the stairs.

    So thankful that you had a good trip with Grandma.

    We had so fun celebrating your “37th” birthday! Love you!

  2. I was thankful, too, believe me. Yes, I was ready to carry her down the stairs if I had to. If you’d been there with us, we could have crossed our hands and carried her together. THEN she probably would have wanted to go to the Dairy Queen.
    Hey, I would have held on to my favorite “37” longer, except my daughter is now 36! But it was a wonderful party, and I thank you very much. Do I have your permission to share your delicious “White Chili” recipe on the blog and show everyone what a great cook our daughter is? Love you lots and lots, Mookie!

  3. Not to worry or suffer in advance is so important . My girlfriend is traveling and I spent a lovely evening with her mother who has some dementia but doesn’t worry or suffer about anything. It makes life so much easier and she is a happy person.

    • That’s the way my mother is, too, and I wish I could be more like her. Was your girlfriend’s mother calm and unworried before her dementia, or has it just been since the dementia, Gerlinde? I’ve read that it’s the dementia that makes them less likely to feel anxiety or worry, but I have no way of knowing since my mother was like this long before the dementia.

      • My friends mother was like that as long as I can remember and before her dementia. My husband’s aunt had Alzheimer’s and always had a sweet personality , even at the end stage of her illness.

  4. Your Mum has the perfect outlook Marylin. Why worry if you don’t have to.
    I hope someone did the old boy some fresh popcorn.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

    • Actually, David, that was the problem. It was his birthday, and he’d received a basket of all kinds of treats–including packets of microwave popcorn–and I guess he must have decided he’d find several at once.

      Supposedly, because of his age, his kitchen stove, oven and microwave have a safety switch that a caregiver has to turn on, but he must have figured out how to turn it on by himself. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, and neither was anyone else.

  5. Arresting title, photos, essay, as usual. I will offer another poetic reference to those you have provided. This from Julius Caesar – “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once” which apparently mirrors your mother’s lifelong philosophy.

    I too wrote a post on childhood poetry recently. In case you missed it, here is the link: Thanks for always providing top-notch posts, Marylin.

  6. Hi Marylin, I am so glad it was not a bigger fire. I also like your mom’s attitude; not to worry until danger is really evident. Growing up in a Greek family, this was not always the case. Big drama was created around seemingly little things, especially by my immigrant grandmother who worried about everything.
    As I get older, I am less likely to worry or panic. I have more faith now too and am willing to cede things to God.
    PS. I just changed the batteries on my smoke detectors a few days ago. I am good to go. 🙂

    • Good for you, Joanne; those smoke detectors have to be fully charged! When I was growing up, I would have loved a bit of Greek drama in my family; we had Italian neighbors, and I always was fascinated by their colorful arguments, too.
      But now I’m very glad I had Mom’s calm, collected and faithful responses to trouble as an example. I still have to remind myself of how she would react when I sense things getting out of hand.

  7. I just want to give you a big, virtual hug.

  8. Hudson Howl

    I raced to comment. But now that I am here, apprehension takes hold, so I’ll simply say this. My father lived with dementia for over twenty years. It was twenty years of living without fear. And in a way, that I cannot explain here, it allowed us the privileged of bearing witness to his true essence.

    • I’m so glad you did comment! I’ve heard that dementia often does that, the calm, fearless presence it brings with it. But I’ve no way of knowing for sure as my mother had no symptoms of dementia until she was 90, which was 6 years ago. So for me, it’s a joy to see her calm, pleasant, confident and fearless personality continue…even after the dementia has taken away so many other things in her life.
      Thanks for sharing about your father’s last twenty years.

  9. How very scary, especially for those who are uncertain about what’s going on. Your Mom’s lifelong demeanor of calm probably kicked in. I’m glad she and the other residents are safe. Thanks for the reminder about Fire Prevention.

    As for popcorn, I prefer the kind you pop on the stove. I think it tastes way better. 😉

    • Oh, I agree with you, Judy. I love stove-popped corn–it’s how Mom fixed our Sunday night popcorn. That and sliced apples with peanut butter was our picnic on the floor as we watched special Sunday night television programs, so stove-popped is part of a total package of memories for me.

      • Oh how I love sliced apples with peanut butter. Such a wonderful treat. 😉

      • We always had nice Sunday dinners, Judy, and Mom prepared wonderful meals with enough food to invite guests to join us at the last minutes. Those were good meals and good times, but if I had to choose my favorite meal from Sundays while I was growing up, it would be the popcorn and the apples slices with peanut butter. In fact, just writing this now makes me want to go fix some now!

  10. Life and Other Turbulence

    What a beautiful post this is! I love that quote by Seneca. And I have a little notebook that I carry in my purse that exact British poster (Keep Calm and Carry On) printed on the cover, a daily reminder that nothing is insurmountable no matter how unexpected the turbulence in life becomes.

    • Life and Other Turbulence

      *with that exact British poster printed on the cover…

    • Thanks you for your comments, but also for your remarkable blog. Now I know why you and I both carry reminders to Keep Calm and Carry On. Your reminder that nothing is insurmountable no matter how unexpected the turbulence becomes is an inspirational reminder.

  11. juliabarrett

    Keep Calm and Carry On would have been another great title for this piece. Yes, I can see how that describes your mother. It’s a darn good way to live. No need to be upset and panicked in advance. Doesn’t do anyone any good. Besides, we fix what we can and accept what we can’t fix– something that’s difficult and not difficult at the same time.
    Did she get a walk?

    • She didn’t get a walk that night, but she did get hours of poems read aloud to her as she snuggled under the covers of her bed, Julia. And that seemed to open long unused lines of communication that really surprised me.
      I like the way you explain the alternative to getting upset and panicked in advance: we fix what we can and accept what we can’t fix. Very specific and wise.

  12. Glad that this ended well Marylin. Your mother’s attitude in not worrying about things before they happen is a good one. I do have the ‘worry gene’, which my own mother was prone to as well, but I try not to waste as much time on worrying in advance these days – I think getting older helps 🙂

    • I think my dad was the one with the worry gene, Andrea, and that’s where I inherited it. But like you, as I get older the age carries with it the ability to spend less time worrying about things in advance.

  13. I would panic, so glad things worked out all right for everyone involved, Marylin. The poem at the beginning made me think of a happier way to ‘sound the alarms’ about seasons. You are so right to remind us of the dangers when the weather has created dry leaves, grass and dead branches which can create the perfect (but bad) way to have a fire started. I am a ‘worrier’ which I hope won’t shorten my life. I try to ‘shrug things off,’ but not always possible!

    • And don’t you sometimes find that the more we try to shrug things off, the more we focus on them and worry more?
      Mom saw the autumn fires as I did, the burning leaves we used to have after we raked the leaves. But you’re right: there are inherent dangers in the dry leaves, grass and dead branches, too. And as we learned in 2012 and 2013 in Colorado, fires have a mind of their own!

  14. I wasn’t born with your mother’s grace, to remain serene during fearful situations. But, I’ve faced enough really big, really traumatic things and survived them, that things have to get awfully dire to rattle me these days. Unless I’ve overly tired. Then any little thing will set my pulse racing. Which is why I believe in naps.

    About your burnt popcorn incident: that happened to us. We were in a hotel in Bethlehem, PA, in January, when the fire alarm went of at 2am. The worst part was, they had a new alarm system. All the electricity was immediately shut down, and in addition to a screeching alarm, a strobe light came on, and a voice, saying, “Fire. Fire. This is an emergency. Please leave your room immediately and proceed to the nearest exit. Do not use the elevator.” This woke us out of a dead sleep, and the strobe totally disoriented us so we couldn’t find our clothes, our wallets, the door….

    Then we couldn’t return to our rooms until the fire fighters came in, checked the hotel, and gave the all clear.

    And yep. The night employee had burnt the popcorn in the employee’s break room. We were not happy.

    • Oh, Tracy, at least I was with my mom in her apartment, and if we’d had to “escape” the fire, I knew the way to the exit stairs and could have gotten her down them by myself if I had to. To wake up in a strange hotel room to strobe lights and a “voice” would have been awful.

      Like you, I believe a nap is often a cure–or at least a big help–for all kinds of problems and concerns. What seems almost overwhelming when I’m tired looks do-able and almost simple once I’ve had a nice long nap. I’ve always thought that if I were in the military and taken prisoner, the enemy wouldn’t have to torture me to get me to tell secrets. They would only have to keep me awake so long that I’d finally blabber everything.

      • I”m pretty sure that sleep deprivation is the worst torture that exists. I have almost a Jekyll/Hyde personality (although, only my nearest and dearest see it). When I’m well-rested I’m almost a saint. When not, I’m tempted to act like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, on her very worst bad days (although now that I”m a grown-up, I don’t act like her, instead, I order myself to take a nap!!)

      • Excellent solution, Trace. Order yourself to take a nap! Next time I’ll do that, and also order those around me to give me peace and quiet while I nap. That combination sounds good to me.

  15. Popcorn can certainly cause havoc in a microwave. My mother has the same ‘keep calm’ demeanor and tells us how she ‘crocheted’ her way through the military coop in Fiji in the nineties. She’s now in a nursing home and on the ground floor with a door out to a garden (I’m only thinking this now because you mentioned fire and I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to remove the elderly by stairs in a fire!)

    • “Crocheted” her way through the military coop in Fijii? I hope she saved some of the things she crocheted, Diane. Think how comforting that reminder would be, to hold the project that got her through really tough times.
      When Mom and Dad moved into the assisted living, a lovely, larger apartment was available on the main floor and it had a private garden. But because my father had Alzheimer’s and was beginning to wander, we had to take an upstairs smaller apartment with no outside doors and that was easier to monitor. I knew I could get Mom out if I had to, but when you mentioned your mother being near a garden, I know my mother would love having a garden nearby. But now she’s “familiar” with this apartment and thinks it’s home; to move her would be very confusing.

  16. What a frightening experience for you, your mother and all of the residents. I was relieved to read everyone was okay. Over the years, I’ve worked very hard at developing your mother’s attitude toward worrying. I used to worry about everything, especially losing one of my parents. Now I enjoy every day I have with them and practice not worrying about things that are out of my control. Worrying can consume all of your energy to live your life. Someone needs to buy that gentleman some already popped corn. 🙂

    • Yes! Buy him prepared popcorn…AND turn off the power switch to his microwave, and also anything in him apartment that he can set and then forget!
      You and I are both trying to worry less, Jill, but that’s easier said than done. But at least we’re still trying. 😉

  17. Whew – scary stuff, Marylin!. And a lesson to me. Last night I virtuously microwaved a bag of 100-calorie popcorn (which I have only done a few times) instead of having my usual weekend late-night snack of a leftover piece of pizza or two. I had to throw the first bag out because it burned before the suggested cook time was up. The smell alerted me before the microwave bell. If I had known that there was even the possibility of the thing catching fire and blowing open the microwave door I wouldn’t have been so casual about stepping out of the kitchen for the first couple of popping minutes. Between seeing how quickly the stuff charred last night and reading your post, I’ll be a lot more vigilant next time I’m being virtuous!

    • Actually Shel, I think the 100 calorie bags are pretty small and would just burn to a crisp. As I’m learning now, the elderly man had a box of 3 regular sizes and he put the entire box in the microwave and then probably started pushing buttons. That made for flames.
      But since the post, on Facebook and private emails, 6 people have mentioned their parents/grandparents/older family members doing the same thing. And one teacher I worked had her elderly father visiting her; he decided to fix eggs for breakfast and put three in the microwave. Still in the shells, not even pierced. They exploded and knocked the door off the microwave. Fortunately, he wasn’t watching them through the microwave at the time, but had gone to another part of the kitchen.
      Pizza sounds like a safer snack, Shel.

      • Just the little excuse I needed to have a little bit of pizza, Marylin – I’m definitely ALL about safety! And Note to Self: poke hole in eggshells before microwaving – Yow!

      • Yow, is right, Shel. I googled it to prove to my granddaughter, and the dangers of microwaving eggs in the shell without being pierced are kind of scary. If you want to try it for kicks, I recommend you wait for the results in another room.

  18. It just shows you how dangerous something like popcorn can be! Seriously, though, how scary for you all. Fire drills are one thing, but the confusion when the real thing happens is no joke.
    Glad all turned out ok in the end, and I wonder if the old gentleman ever got his popcorn – or perhaps it’s put him off it forever!

    • Actually, Jenny, I think they unplugged the new microwave. But he can have popcorn (or whatever snack he wants) but one of the attendants will help him with it.
      When my daughter was little, friends used to laugh that I kept paper plates and a cup of water inside my microwave. I’d been warned that when there are children are around–and they like to push buttons–it’s good to have a cup of water inside (it takes a while to boil) and paper plates will get wet when the water does boil and then just “cook.” In the meantime, of course, parents or other adults are supposed to be paying attention.
      Even now, I still store my paper plates and paper towels stored in my microwave.

  19. dianabletter

    All’s well that ends well, right? We were all too familiar with alarms this summer in Israel – but for bombs and rockets, not fires, so I can relate to that harrowing wail. I’m glad you are all safe, first of all. Secondly, what is always remarkable is how you’re able to turn your sadness about your mother’s condition and the fires into beautiful art!

    • Well, I don’t know about the beautiful art, but we do grab life with both hands, and hold on until we begin laughing. I’m so glad that even with the dementia at 96, my mother can still do that.
      You have had quite the summer, Diana, so the microwave fire and alarms were very mild. And now, with all that’s happening everywhere–all the beheadings and threats and bombings–I’m actually glad Mom can’t understand. Fear wouldn’t be her main reaction; it would be sorrow, I think.

  20. I wish I could be more like your mom, to not worry about what might be. But always my mind plays out possible scenarios about my worries! Love the quote too on this page. We just got home having passed through bottom of Colorado. Went to Bent’s Fort for second time and found it one of greatest moments of trip…I am betting you have been there! Now back to Midwest and the routine.

    • Sometime when you’re in Ft. Scott, Claudia, you might visit the Old Fort there as well. It’s not as authentically old and rugged, but it has some very good details.
      Like you, I worry about what might be, and once I get started it’s difficult to stop the thoughts. I try to stop, take a breath, and then do what my mom used to do…get busy and busily involved in doing something that needed to get done.

  21. Some scary excitement. I would have been in real distress as I can’t stand the smell of popcorn.
    I love the Seneca quotation. Trying not to worry is so hard. The media and politicians do their best to raise our levels of anxiety to outright fear.

    Your post has much good advice. A relative of mine, while dying said “my regret is that I was afraid of life”.
    Something for us worriers to think about.
    Many new microwave ovens have a safety feature that can be set where a specific sequence of buttons is needed to be pressed before it becomes operational again. I wonder if anyone uses this option?

    • “My regret is that I was afraid of life.” Wow, Rod, that’s a full sermon–and a short headstone etching–in itself. I don’t want that to be my final thought.
      I’ll pass your microwave safety feature on to the staff at Mom’s assisted living. Most of the apartments have a power switch that can turn off just the microwave, stove top and oven in the kitchen until a staff member is there to help, but the microwave security is especially good. Thanks.

  22. Love your mother’s attitude and grace Marylin. Glad it all turned out ok. I love your Keep Calm and Read Poetry 🙂 I agree wholeheartedly! great poetry makes everything better.

    • Thank you, Yolanda. I’m fascinated at all the bumper stickers and T-shirts I see that are inspired by the British theme. “Keep Calm and Don’t Hit Your Brother”, “Keep Calm and Buy Mutual Funds”, and for breast cancer, “Keep Calm and Think Pink.”

  23. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Oh my, Marylin. How scary. I’m glad you were there when it happened and that your mom stayed calm.

    • And it isn’t just her age or the dementia, Nancy. Mom has always been this way. If she were more steady on her feet and had more energy (and memory) when the alarms began her first response would have been to go and see if she could help the others out in the hall.
      Yes, I was glad I was with her, but more for the reminder of how she used to be.

  24. I understand what you mean about the losing of independence. My mother is facing that now and it is frightening for her. Your posts are always a comfort to me . Thanks.

    • I’m glad if it helps, Elizabeth. The loss of independence is frightening for your mother, and also for you and all your family. If you come across any additional suggestions you find helpful, please share them. We’re all trying to find things that lessen the fear and pain for our parents.

  25. I have a fridge magnet that says ‘Keep Calm & Drink More Tea”! The caffeine doesn’t help with a racing pulse but I’ve got to have one vice, right? Oh Marylin, as always, your posts take me along such a wonderful journey. I wish I could stop worrying, it is a massive problem for me and one I battle daily. It’s not the big things and I amaze myself at how I handle a crisis keeping calm and collected but it’s in the drip, drip, drip of every day life that my worries eat away at me if I let them. Keeping busy as your mom did so as not to obsess on what ‘could’ happen is my adage too otherwise it just eats away at me. I’m a lot better than I was though! So glad the fire wasn’t anything more serious, I think that maybe the staff better get that poor man ready made popcorn from now on! What a fright he must have had when the microwave door flew off! Fires are scary to say the least. Interesting knowing that you read the poems to your mom after this incident…’fires in the fall!’…Thank goodness this fire turned out to be a minor one and long may it stay that way. Lovely post dear Marylin, I enjoyed it from start to finish, thank you 🙂

    • Oh, Sherri, you summed up my worries, too, when you wrote that it’s the “drip, drip, drip” of every day life that gets to you. I love the way you so aptly describe things.
      You’d think that, having a mother who kept busy and didn’t obsess with what might happen would have created more of the same attitude in me. But I think I got more of my dad’s personality that jumped right in and worried in advance, maybe to try to prepare for when the problem actually happened…even though many of the worries never happened.
      Sometimes I just don’t learn the right lessons, I guess. But I’m glad the post struck a chord with you, too, Sherri. Maybe we’ll both get this figured out.

  26. My heart would have been in my throat when those alarms went off! I’m glad to hear that the threat wasn’t as serious as it could have been. But I’d hate to think how long that popcorn must have been going to start a fire and blow off the microwave door!

    • Oh, I know. And supposedly, just before it exploded, he went into the other room. I can’t imagine what would have happened if he’d been trying to watch through the microwave window when it happened!
      Never a dull evening, even in a senior care facility!

  27. Jane Thorne

    Thank goodness no-one was hurt. I am with you and your Mum, Marylin, Keep Calm and Carry on. xX ❤

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