And then, after Grandpa almost died of heart infection, she became a patient. Back in 1982 Alzheimer's Disease wasn't commonly known. All we knew is that the color had drained from her life. The fog crept in. At first it was embarrassing, awkward and confusing. That's how it felt for us. I can only begin to imagine how she felt inside, knowing that something wasn't quite right and losing a battle to keep all of what she knew to be herself. Initially we could still interact with Grandma and enjoy spending time with her. Later she became paranoid, physically violent and angry.
Before Grandpa took her to the nursing home, where she lived only one week before dying, I would go out to their house to give Grandpa a break and take care of some of her personal hygiene. Grandma had always been nicely dressed and loved to accessorize. Her hair was styled and she always wore the right shade of lipstick. Having extremely wavy/curly hair that I spent hours straightening with a hair dryer and curling iron, I had no idea how to put curlers in her hair. I fumbled and learned. It was hard for me to bathe her as she looked up at me helplessly, somehow knowing that I should not be bathing her as she had bathed me as a child.
Some days I hid my tears. I knew if she saw my pain, it would concern her and worry her. But, gradually I looked forward to those bathing times. Behind the closed door of the bathroom I could speak to her, woman to woman and gently love her in ways that I was not confident to do in front of a family of men who sneered at God. I sang. I didn't know what to sing, but I knew she loved music. So I sang...
Jesus loves me, this I know.
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak but He is strong.
Her body visibly relaxed and I continued with The Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace and whatever other hymns came to mind. I didn't know what Catholics sang, so I didn't know what or if she would recognize any of them. So many times she rocked me, cuddled me and sang to me as a little girl and now as I sang hymns to her, we both felt some of the fear melting away. She was a captive audience in the bath tub. So I told her that God would always be with her and that when she was afraid, she could ask Jesus to help her. My faith was still young in those days and if I had to do it again, I would have read the Scripture to her boldly and I would not have cared how many godless men were listening to me!
One of my most reassuring memories was when we were in the hallway and she pointed to a picture. It was a gaudy, horrible 3D pictures of Jesus praying at Gethsemane in an even gaudier gilt frame. A faded palm leaf from Palm Sunday long past, rested behind the corner. She stopped and pointed and looked at me. She pointed again, repeatedly with her index finger, but in spite of her best efforts could only utter in awe, "Him!" My eyes welled and I nodded affirmation. Him. That's who I had been singing about. That's who I had told her would protect her and comfort her. Him. She repeated, "Oh! Him!" in an admiring and loving tone. It was then that I knew and understood that God transcends time, disease, modern medicine, our understanding and He never abandons us even if by all outward appearances it seems that we could never understand!
Shortly after that she became sick and it was time to place her in a nursing home. Grandpa couldn't handle it alone anymore and in a couple months I was off to college in another city. It was too much.
Towards the end, she knew Grandpa's name and my name most of the time, but not always. She knew we belonged to her and searched our faces for help, recognition and escape. She loathed the nursing home and hours before she died, she grabbed my dress, nearly ripping it and screamed, "Theresa! Don't leave me!" It was the hardest thing I ever did - walking down that hall and out the door as she screamed my name! That evening we received a call. She had been strapped in a wheel chair because she was so agitated and angry; she rocked herself to the point where she had a heart attack. She loathed being caged, imprisoned and neglected.
If you know a caregiver of someone with Alzheimer's Disease, please take the time to stop and talk to them. If appropriate, check and see if you can assist them in some way. Today there are all kinds of programs, some free and some paid, for caregivers to have respite. Our church has one called The Club. Many state and county agencies can provide assistance, but most of all families with Alzheimer's need love from every day people. Prayers are always welcomed and this is something anyone can do!
If you know someone with Alzheimer's Disease, do not avoid them. Treat them like a human being. After all they really are! Do not embarrass them or shame them. Do not assume that because the wires are scrambled in their brains that they do not on some level understand how you are treating them. If appropriate give them a HUG! Sing to them the praises of the Lord. Read God's Word to them which is Living and Active! I am thoroughly convinced that people with brain disease and altered states of consciousness can still hear God speaking to them!
Please, if you lose your keys or misplace your papers, don't make a joke about having Alzheimer's Disease. It's a serious disease. It's no joke. And it certainly isn't funny.
Sadly, our society in general is very rude and lacking in their care of the elderly and anyone different. Alzheimer's Disease can strike anyone. It is not only the disease of the aged. My Grandmother likely began having symptoms in her late 40s. She died at the young age of 67. Alzheimer's is no respecter of race, age, bank account, creed or religion. There is some evidence that an active brain can prolong the onset of symptoms. Knitting is one of the activities that can be helpful! But there are no guarantees. The medical community doesn't know as much as they would like to about Alzheimer's Disease, but there is at least one type which is hereditary. That is a scary sentence for those of us who have lost loved ones in the fog. My neurologist told me that the testing is not generally advised unless Alzheimer's Disease is suspected as a diagnosis because a person could have the gene and never have the disease. Having a positive result could cause a person to live in terrifying fear. So, I have not been tested and likely never will.
A good read about Alzheimer's Disease is Aging With Grace, which chronicles the Nun Study. And a fiction film from Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures, A Vow To Cherish, is a heart wrenching portrayal of early onset Alzheimer's Disease as well as an example of how love is an action, not a feeling.
I hope you never experience it in your family or in your person. But, if you do, please do not isolate yourself. You are not alone. People care. Sometimes people don't know what to say. Sometimes they are afraid. But don't try to go it alone. And by all means, don't try to do it without God!
Today, Grandma, I remember YOU for all those whose memories are buried. Today I lifted my voice and hands to Heaven as I sang and I remembered you.