The first time I worked with a person who had dementia, I was a caregiver for Right at Home. Allen Hager and I founded the company in 1995 with the mission to keep the elderly living independently in their homes for as long as possible. I often took a shift with a client if a caregiver called in sick.
I met Mrs. S, on a beautiful Saturday in May. Our company had been hired to take care of her husband who had cancer and had recently become blind. The family warned us that sometimes Mrs. S didn’t remember to give her husband his medications.
I introduced myself to Mr. and Mrs. S and let them know I was happy to fill in for their regular “girl” Suzie. I offered to make lunch and straighten the kitchen. Mrs. S wanted to visit first and invited me to chat with them in their living room.
We had a delightful conversation. Mrs. S told me all about their grown children whose portraits lined the walls. She explained their son was “biological,” while his older two sisters had been adopted. Trying to make an emotional connection with her, I explained that my husband and I had also formed our family by adopting our two daughters.
She asked their names and ages and was curious about their adoption stories. We had a pleasant chat. All the time I wondered why Allen had misinformed me. This woman was sharp as a Cutco knife. She pulled dates and names from her memory just as quickly as a college history professor.
I made the couple lunch, laundered their sheets, guided Mr. S through his daily exercise routine and took him for a walk.
When I returned to the office I asked Allen if Mrs. S had been misdiagnosed.
“She doesn’t seem to have any symptoms of dementia,” I reported.
“Just wait,” Allen replied. “And don’t let her send you home early. She has a habit of trying to dismiss caregivers before the end of their shifts.”
Two weeks later, I again had the privilege of working with Mr. and Mrs. S. The trees were in full bloom and the couples’ mid-town neighborhood was alive with people tending their gardens and lawns.
Mrs. S greeted me at the door. I re-introduced myself, reminding her I was from Right at Home and that I had worked with her two weeks ago. She enthusiastically invited me in and bade me to sit with her and her husband in the living room. She brought me a cup of tea.
During our chat, she asked about my two daughters. Without any prompting, she retold details of their adoption stories. She politely asked about Allen. We had a lovely ten-minute chat. Then without a verbal hint or physical cue, she stared at me, smiled, and asked, “So what’s the nature of your visit with us today, dear?”
In the time it took for her to take a sip of tea, she didn’t know me. She’d forgotten who I was and why I was sitting on her sofa. Her instant confusion slapped me into reality. This was a stark example of the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
I had other opportunities to work with clients who had dementia. Our company provided around-the-clock care for Mrs. G in her apartment in the independent living tower of an upscale retirement village in Council Bluffs, IA.
Mrs. G was an absolute joy. She told me of her travels to Asia. How she raised her two daughters alone after she divorced in the 1950s. She reminded me that a single-mother was rare in mid-century Omaha. But she had flourished, managing an apartment complex, later buying the buildings to secure steady income for her family.
She was an amazingly accomplished woman. One, now tethered to an oxygen tank because of her decades of smoking. Little by little I saw what happens when the brain is deprived of oxygen. Over the months I worked with Mrs. G, she lost her vivid memories. Her recollections of the life she’d built with her two daughters vanished. She always recognized me when I came, but forgot who I was when she discussed me with other caregivers.
I have to admit, sometimes her comments made me laugh. Like when her regular day-time caregiver, Marlene, told me that Mrs. G questioned why I left Allen and Right at Home to go build houses with Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity.
“Why would Allen let Terry go?” she wanted to know.
An Example Closer to Home
Clara Eva Oswald, my wonderful mother-in-law has dementia. We began recognizing the symptoms shortly after her husband died three years ago. Like in many cases, “Grandma” (as everyone calls her) can’t recall recent events, but her long-term memory remains intact.
Thank goodness she can remember me or she might be calling me by my husband’s ex-wife’s name. You see, I came to the Oswald party late, having married Alden just five years ago.
Grandma only remembers events that happened over three years ago.
So, she doesn’t recall the birth of her last three great-grandchildren. We do have to laugh though. Every time we talk about Ashley, who is two years old, Grandma wants to know who Ashley is. When we explain she is Cyndy’s and Don’s youngest child, we see the wheels turning in her head.
Then wide-eyed, Grandma exclaims, “Cyndy has FOUR kids?”
Grandma can’t believe it. She’s astonished every one of the hundreds of times we tell her. Cyndy has four kids.
Grandma now lives in Iowa with our daughter and son-in-law, Kathy and Larry Harvey and their two children, Melanie and Jacob. Grandma’s life is beautiful. Kathy and Larry take marvelous care of her and include her in all their activities. Grandma goes to soccer games, school plays, friends’ game night, and band concerts in the town square. She greets Kathy’s students who arrive every morning for the pre-school class in the Harvey home.
And when Alden talks with his mother and asks her what she’s been doing, she can’t recall. She denies ever going fishing with Larry and can’t remember last weekend’s visit with Cyndy and Don.
“Cyndy has FOUR kids?”
I guess Grandma lives the way many people claim they want to live—in the moment. She always enjoys the concerts, baseball games, and walks in the park. She smiles and claps her hands to the beat of the music. Win or lose, she hugs Melanie and Jacob after their ball games.
Grandma’s life is full. She really enjoys her days. She just can’t form new memories of her activities. She can’t recall those recent, amusing family reunions or simple, quiet afternoons. So, sometimes she gets sad. Sometimes she feels abandoned by her husband who isn’t there anymore. She frets over where Kathy is even when she’s gone only twenty minutes to run to the grocery store.
Life, even a good, safe, care-free one, can be tough for a person with dementia. Sometimes it is for Grandma.
In my next blog, I’ll tell you about the Read to Remember Campaign—my effort to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association. And I’ll let you know how you can help.
Grandma wears many hats.