Alzheimer’s: Memories Are a Terrible Thing To Waste

I actually thought this would just be some good therapy for me to write about this. It’s my personal experience and doesn’t reflect anyone in my family, because we all handled it and coped differently. It’s obviously not a medical assessment, but more along the lines of the emotions I had in dealing with my grandma’s Dementia/Alzheimer’s as well as remembering the good times to cope with her passing. I never talked about how I felt to see her forget me and wish I’d sought out ways to deal with it, but I didn’t. If I had, maybe it could have helped both of us. Some nursing homes even have counseling services to help family members deal with your loved one’s health issues and to deal with grief when (or if, as most of us like to think when we’re in that boat) they leave us. Maybe this will help someone and maybe not, but I feel like I need to write this in order to grieve properly.

I lost my grandpa just before I turned fourteen. He was a cancer patient, and I helped out when I could, but a lot of my “help” consisted of my company and maybe staying overnight if I was needed for something. I don’t remember staying by myself often, just once that really stands out, and at that time my mom was always with me. After he passed, I stayed with my grandma on weekends because she didn’t like being alone.

Grandma and I would watch TV: During the day it was High Chaparal and those kinds of shows. Rifleman was one of my favourites because Johnny Crawford was around my age in the show and was kinda cute, and she liked his daddy. In the evening we’d watch Lawrence Welk (which was actually my favourite) and wrestling (which was her favourite). She was borderline diabetic and swore up and down to my mom that she got ice cream cones which she ate sans ice cream and bought the actual ice cream for us, the grandkids. And when my mom would leave, Grandma and I would have an ice cream cone. With ice cream.

I remember there was a really cute boy who walked around the neighbourhood, but both of us were shy and never talked to each other. My grandma’s long-time neighbour, who never revealed her age but I assumed she was close to the up-or-downside of my grandma’s age, which was eighty-something at that time, said he seemed lonely and asked if he could help her shell pecans while she was on the front porch one day. They talked for a while and I stepped outside. She’d been waiting for me out there and motioned for me to call her on the phone and told me all the juicy gossip: He didn’t have a girlfriend and a few other details that I don’t remember. She just wanted to let me know I had a shot! And of course, my grandma wanted to know all the details, too! In fact, I think she’s the one who told the neighbour that I thought he was cute!

But one thing that no one knew, and I don’t remember if I’ve ever told anyone, was that my grandma held my secrets. I could tell her anything and she’d give me advice and never told a soul. There are some things you just can’t tell your mom, because there are some things that grandma’s just know better.

Something else I just have to share. One day she had a tummy ache. Maybe from the ice cream that she wasn’t supposed to have? *wink wink* Anyway, again, she was in her eighties. “Hope I’m not pregnant,” she said. I laughed so hard, she used that when she, or even I, had a tummy ache, just to render some giggles out of me. That’s just a little insight into her humour and how she liked to make people laugh.

Just before I turned nineteen, Grandma went into a nursing home. My mom visited her twice a week without fail, unless something came up that couldn’t be re-scheduled which was next to never. At first the nursing home stay was supposed to be temporary, but Grandma had given up on walking. She could walk, but would rather be pushed in her wheelchair. She always fought the idea of riding in the wheelchairs that were provided by stores when we were shopping because she didn’t want to “look old.” But she got a little taste of it at the nursing home and found a little too much comfort in it.

And through the years, I saw a steady decline in her mental state. She remembered me sometimes. Sometimes not so much. And it was hard. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure that she really recognised me at all. If someone identified me by name to tell her who I was, she’s say, “Really?” as if she was surprised.

I was around her so much ever since I could remember. Some of my fondest moments were spent at her house, and in her rock garden talking to the plastic animals and pretending they were real. My grandpa’s decline seemed to be more physical because man, he could still yell! But he knew who I was. In fact they say he was nicer to me than he was to most people because he had a tendency to baby me. “I asked you to turn the furnace up for that baby!” he said when I was twelve, referring to me as “that baby,” even though it was burning up inside the house as it was. But he knew me. And I guess I knew he loved me.

But with my grandmother, her decline seemed largely with her inability to remember. That’s not to say she didn’t have physical issues as well, but it was the dementia which she was diagnosed with that I took note of more than anything. And I won’t lie, because that wouldn’t be good for the therapeutic effect of this piece and it won’t help anyone else who is going through the same thing: It hurt. I currently clean the house for a woman who is in her mid-eighties and I talked to her for a moment about my grandma’s passing and the ordeal with dementia. I couldn’t understand how she’d forget me. Logically I understood, but emotionally I didn’t get it. I told her it was like mourning twice, and she knew exactly what I meant.

Sometimes I would get mad about it. Why did this happen? How did it happen? And when? What was the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? Which one did she really have? Did it really matter? To a medical professional studying or treating it, I’m sure it does, but to the family member observing it, what difference did it make? It didn’t. It doesn’t. Not when your loved one has a hard time remembering your name or don’t seem to recognise you, because in either case I don’t know if much can really be done aside from the new medications that are used to treat it in the early stages. By the time those drugs rolled out, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference in her specifically at that point. Plus as new as they were, did we really want to take the risk of giving it to her?

I said going through this with a loved one and then dealing with their passing is like mourning twice. My grandma and I shared so many memories. So many. Countless. And so many good times! I wonder if it was the fact that she’d forgotten me or that I was alone in those memories that made it so hard. When I’d tell her my secrets or when we’d get into “trouble” and giggle about it, those memories became mine alone. I had no one to laugh about those things with anymore. I couldn’t just say, “Hey, remember the time my mom was gone and we (insert trouble-making incident here).” When I say we got into trouble, it was all about the silly things we used to do and laugh about. Sometimes she’d say, “Don’t tell your mama!” Something so simple like me putting black lipstick on her or watching a TV show because we thought the guys were cute. We were often jokingly that we were bad influences on each other. Sometimes she’d say, “Your mother isn’t going to let you come over here anymore!” referencing our bad selves without “adult,” or rather “responsible” supervision. We just had so much fun together!

All that was taken from me with Alzheimer’s, and I felt alone in those memories. Who was I going to confide in? And I’m sure it was no picnic for her, either. She had a zest for life, and to see her lose the enjoyment in things she once loved was so hard. Going out to buffets became pureed meals at the nursing home. No more watching wrestling or collecting the action figures. Her sense of humour had gone. She had no more dedication to BINGO. All those things. Gone. Just gone. And all because of some stupid health issue that just seems so unnecessary and cruel to the person experiencing it and to those around them.

And now that she’s passed, it feels that way all over again. The mourning process started back up. Those times when I wished she’d remember me, or the fun things we did together. The things she did deliberately to drive my mom crazy and laugh about it.

I know she’s in a better place, probably catching up with everyone at some Divine Buffet up there. I’m sure my grandpa stayed behind in a comfy chair to watch The Flintstones or Mama’s Family (I still remember his laugh! But he wasn’t much for going out and preferred staying at home to watch TV but maybe he decided to go along for the special occasion.) She’s probably winning a round of BINGO as we speak. Either that or the BINGO hall is being raided (I’m sure even Heaven has to shake things up a bit sometimes)! She’ll have something to tell my grandpa about when she gets home, because I don’t think BINGO was his thing. I can’t help but think of The Blue Bird with Shirley Temple. If you’ve seen it you know the scene I’m talking about. But that thought brings me some comfort. I bet she’ll have stories to tell me some day.

I am going to digress from the issue of Alzheimer’s just to share a happy note, or at least some thoughts that bring me some personal peace.

My cousin and his wife said something to me today at the funeral that struck a chord. They said I got her sweetness, that of all of us I’m the most like her. I don’t know about that (mischievous grin), but it meant a lot. What some people don’t know, because I myself never really thought about it, is this…

Whenever I carry a purse and someone says, “I need a such-and-such,” chances are I have it. Q-Tip? Tooth-pick? Breath mint? Tissue? Yep. You’re covered. I got you. People are always amazed at how I have the most random stuff for almost any situation. For a while I even had one of those collapsible cups. And one thing we all remember about my grandma (and still talk about) is her purse. Whatever you needed, she’d reach into her purse and hand it to you. That purse of hers was like a magician’s bag. All those things fit in there somehow. That’s why I had bought the collapsible cup, because she always had those when we were kids. If we needed a drink she’d bring out the cup and we’d fill it at a water fountain. We probably weren’t even thirsty, I think it had more to do with those cups just being really cool. In that aspect, I think *know* I take after her. Like a boyscout, always prepared. Need a RollAID?

My niece loved my collapsible cup and I wasn’t using it so I gave it to her, but she didn’t want it. She always changes her mind when I actually give it to her even if she was begging, but I think it has to do with her not wanting to take my things. Anyway, I think the cup made its way in a drawer somewhere and if I can find it or if I have to buy a new one, I think I just might start packing that into my purse again. That way, when my nieces are around, I can continue that tradition. That way, they’ll get to experience what it was like to shop with their great-grandma since they were too little to know her the way I did. I’m just glad I had that privilege.