Waiting for those moments of grace

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, as many as one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Alzheimer’s alone kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined. Any type of dementia is unforgiving and cruel—a master thief that robs the person living with it of memory and language; it can steal motor skills and sometimes sight. It is very hard on the family, watching loved ones struggle with it. 

My mother’s dementia has accelerated since my father’s death. She recently scored 8 on a cognitive scale of 30. My dad kept her condition from her, going to great lengths to perpetuate the charade that all was as it always had been. He agreed with her that the housekeeper was stealing things, telling the housekeeper privately that Mom was impaired and not to pay attention to any accusations. He told us those stories with a wink—“Mary stole frozen catfish out of the freezer. And two weeks later she brought it back!”

He was brilliantly successful, so much so that she denies that she has dementia because “your father and I told each other everything, and he would have told me if I had anything wrong with me.” Then she hangs up on you. She is still living in their home, just as my father wished, now with 7x24 care because she started doing walkabouts, getting as far as the neighbors down the street even though she is more than half-blind, uses a walker and hadn’t walked further than the mailbox in years.

We have taught ourselves how to operate in this new paradigm. Ask simple questions. Don’t try to use logic and reason; don’t assume she is confused all the time and don’t talk down to her. Above all, live in the present. But the biggest lesson has been learning to cherish the moments of grace when they appear. For example, a few days after my dad’s funeral, we were all sitting in their bedroom, having once again found my mom’s hearing aid (she loses it several times a day). Just as she got it in her ear, one of my brothers said “Uh oh, we better start speaking in tongues because now she can hear us.” I said “igPay atinLay?” To which my mother immediately retorted “ullBay itShay.” (Words my proper southern mother would never utter in plain English). We burst out laughing, and after a moment my mother joined in, clearly elated with herself. We all needed that laugh, and my brothers and I needed to be reminded that there was still a smart, quick, funny person in there somewhere.  That person is shy and elusive—she can’t be coaxed out—you can only wait for her to emerge when and if she can. We live for those moments.  ∆