Alzheimer’s disease – a personal reflection

How many times has this happened to you? You have spent all Saturday afternoon doing your Christmas shopping and you emerge from a crowded WalMart, ladened with bags into the parking lot. It is snowing a bit and cold. You head down the aisle where you think you parked your car but as you wander along you can’t see it. You stand for a minute, perplexed. All the rows look the same and that red van that you think was parked beside your car has left. For fifteen minutes, you wander up and down the aisles. At some point you actually wonder if someone has stolen your car. Do you call the police? You become frustrated and curse yourself for not taking more notice of your spot when you parked. All these parking lots look the same. Eventually your vehicle appears, right where you left it. You vow this won’t happen again. But, of course, several months later it does.

Now imagine what it is like to live like that day-in and day-out – never remembering exactly what you did two hours ago, what season it is or who that friendly person was who said hello to you in the grocery store. You are at a party and seem to be the centre of attention. Is it your birthday? An anniversary? Is it Christmas or Thanksgiving? Those young adults are calling you Grandma but your grandchildren are much younger than that. Or are they? This is all so confusing.

My Mom had Alzheimer’s disease. Throughout her life she was always a very social person, loving parties and music and people. As her dementia progressed,
robbing her of her memory, it also took her ability to do what she loved most – interact with friends and family. She knew something was wrong. At first others would politely correct her or challenge her gently about what she was saying. Then people began to sit quietly, unable to have a meaningful, accurate conversation. Instinctively, Mom noticed this change and she began to withdraw as well. I’m sure she was feeling increasingly isolated in her fog. She worried that she was “driving everyone else crazy”…or that she was crazy herself.

During World War II my mom entertained troops training for war with a touring show in Ontario. She loved it. Her signature numbers were Minnie the Moocher and Frankie and Johnny. Even years later her friends would urge her for a rendition at parties. And she would gladly oblige.

As I watched her, I imagined that her life had become like living in a constant dream-like state. Her mind would take elements of truth – things she had read or seen on TV- and mingle them with people and events from her past into a tangled, but very inaccurate story. Dreams can be entertaining, bizarre and even terrifying. How difficult must it be to live in a dream all day, never being able to ground yourself in reality?
It helped to keep a sense of humour and even Mom seemed to hold on to this at times.

I remember a heated debate between my parents one Saturday afternoon as we drove up Richmond Street. Mom was insisting that one of her old friends was participating in a sing-along version if The Sound Of Music that was to play at the Grand Theatre the next week.
“He’s dead, Lorraine.” insisted my Dad.
“No,” claimed Mom ” He is playing in the orchestra. I read it in the Free Press.”
“We went to his wake, three weeks ago.” grumbled Dad.
A tense silence followed. Then she added “He looks like hell.” More silence. ” It must have been those three days in the funeral home.”

Mom and Dad greet each other at the train station as my Dad returns from service in Europe during WWII. This photo was taken in late December 1945. They married June 8, 1946.

It was touching to watch my Dad try to continue to involve Mom in decisions and planning just as they had done throughout fifty five years of marriage. Long discussions would end in some consensus but an hour later, Mom would not remember what had been decided and ask the same questions over again. Mom was losing her memory. Dad was losing his life partner.

The progressive course of Alzheimer’s is frustrating and saddening for both the person a their family. It is also a common problem that will become more prevalent as we baby- boomers age. We are not alone. Our family shares this difficult experience with the families of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Charlton Heston, and possibly even yours.

The last time I saw Mom she was in a chronic care facility. She really didn’t know where she was. We had spent the evening before listening to old songs on a Tillsonburg radio station. She loved music. It gave us a springboard to reminisce about times past. When I left to go home the next day, Mom was in wheelchair in the hallway waiting to go to lunch. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. As I stood up to go she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Do that again” she whispered. I did. It was our last goodbye.

3 thoughts on “Alzheimer’s disease – a personal reflection

  1. John, you were blessed with two wonderful parents. I’m glad I was able to meet your mother while she was still her vivacious self. I happily spent a few hours with your Dad in October. The admiration, respect and love, that you hold for both of your parents, is most evident. It is good that you have your photos and your memories.

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