BY: Jean Ferratie
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s long after I accepted the gradual changes I saw in her. I had grown used to partially listening to her repetitious stories and filling in the missing words of her sentences.
I imagine I might have continued to deny my inklings had she not been admitted to the hospital for a short hospital stay. During the night, apparently she had become disoriented and the nurses found her roaming the hallways. A neurology consultation had taken place and the doctor told me that my mother was approaching the middle stages of Alzheimer’s.
The doctor was kind and compassionate as we sat in a hospital conference room. He explained that for people with dementia, once a memory was lost it could not be relearned as in the case of a stroke. I thought I understood that concept, but over the coming months, I often had to fight the urge to say, “I already told you that.”
My mother lived with our family since her retirement. We enjoyed a deep friendship and she led a very independent life filled with activities. Almost overnight our family life dramatically changed with the pronouncement of that one word: Alzheimer’s.
Those happy, active days dropped away from my consciousness as I suddenly felt trapped by the challenges that I imagined lay ahead for all of us. Somewhere in the process of hearing and accepting this diagnosis, my focus shifted from being with Mom to taking care of Mom.
Each day led to a new discovery as I learned what Mom knew and what she could no longer remember. For example, my heart sank the day I realized she could no longer read written directions. She stood in front of the holding her frozen dinner, not knowing what do. That was also the day that I knew she would need someone to stay with her while I was at work. It was the only way I could ensure that she would eat during the day.
I thought about the best way to take care of Mom all the time. I was vigilant in my discreet observations of her. Looking back, I wonder if despite my well-meaning intentions, I arrogantly took it upon myself to decide what I thought was best. Possibly in the process I curbed some of her independence and neglected to consider her capability to express her feelings and opinions in the moment.
Driving the car was a major decision and dilemma as I wondered whether she could drive to the grocery store and find her way home. When was it time to remove her car keys from her purse? Fortunately it turned out to be a mutual agreement when she called me crying from the mall, “I can’t find where I parked the car. Help me!” Thankfully she remembered the phone number, probably because she had dialed it hundreds of times over the years.
That one decision struck a major blow for each of us. It signaled a huge loss of independence for Mom and huge dependence on me. I also began wondering how I could convince her to wear a medical alert bracelet with her name and address without destroying her dignity.
Each day more memories were lost but slowly I discovered that every cloud does have a silver lining. Because my mother did not have memories of the past, I grew to know her in new and different ways that were free from the baggage that most of us carry throughout our lifetimes. Resentments with a sister-in-law no longer mattered and she would talk to her on the phone again. She could go to the hair salon on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday because each of her days really did begin with a slate.
Slowly I let go of the firm notion of taking care of Mom and being with Mom. We began to share a companionship. Often we would engage in an activity and it was as if she was experiencing it for the very first time. I would see delight on her blowing out candles on her birthday cake, coloring with crayons, or picking flowers in the park.
It was surprising to see some amazing changes of imprinted patterns that evolved. She forgot that her back bothered her and I no longer had to drive around a parking lot to find the closest parking space to the store. She even began taking walks up and down our street.
One day we went to a buffet and I will admit I was a bit shocked and embarrassed when she stuck her hands in the salad bin and stacked her plate with a wide variety of . She didn’t remember what she liked or disliked and I watched with fascination as she tried and enjoyed some of those foods.
As time passed, I noticed Mom was able to take care of herself in some new ways. She dressed herself but she didn’t care if her clothes matched. This was the same person who bought me matching box-pleated skirts, cardigan sweaters, and knee socks as a child. I noticed with amusement and sadness that she took over the control of the television remote. Her taste in movies changed from her cherished classics to the Western channel.
She was unaware of the growing to-do list added to my schedule. She was free from paying bills, making dinner, driving herself to doctor appointments, laundry and numerous other details that make up a person’s day.
Mostly she was happy just to be with me. She would follow me from room to room and was always ready to jump into the car for errands or an outing. Slowly I began to recognize her individuality as she displayed her likes and dislikes and a full range of unpredictable emotions. She was Mom, not just a human being with a disease.
One of my most treasured memories occurred when I took her to an outdoor band concert. They were playing music from the Big Band Era. By that time she was barely able to carry on a conversation, yet once the music started she sang the words to almost every song! For more than forty-five minutes, I was filled with awe and gratitude that somewhere deep inside her there was still a bridge to the outside world. I can still recall the joy and contentment on her face.
Alzheimer’s helped me to learn to appreciate Mom and not just take care of her. As her memory fell away, I discovered in her an almost childlike innocence. She taught me to view the world from a different perspective and to notice how precious each moment can be. It is with a sense of irony that the less she remembered, the more present we both became in our lives.