Her doctor administered the standard state memory test. The results indicated that she was experiencing symptoms of classic Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, her blood pressure was 220/120 because she had stopped taking her medication. Hearing the “A” word gave us quite a jolt although we should have seen it coming. But now we had a decision to make concerning her care, and it had to be made immediately. We packed up Mom’s belongings and moved her into our home that evening.
My life totally changed that day. Rather than my studies and writing, my days were now filled with doctor’s appointments, dietary plans, medications, physical therapists, piles of extra laundry, and ever-changing bizarre behavior.
To make matters worse, I took a tumble on our ceramic tile floor about three weeks into our new living arrangements as I was rushing to do laundry. X-rays revealed that I had broken my kneecap in three separate places. So now I had to figure out how to care for my mother from a wheelchair in a two-story house. Have you ever climbed stairs with your arms rather than your legs? After a few days of this, God mercifully rearranged Brian’s work schedule so that he could take his vacation time to care for my Mom while I healed.
For the first year my mind could not accept the irrationality of dementia. I would try to reason with it and lose the battle at every turn. We are rational beings who are ill-equipped to live in the alternate universe of irrationality. Over time, however, I made the mental adjustment and learned to just let it go. This was an amazing victory for me that can only be attributed to God’s grace and mercy.
Memory loss usually begins with short term memory. That was certainly true of my mother. At mealtimes, she peppered the conversation with repetitive questions and repeated stories from her childhood. Afternoons brought on agitation. Agitation led to tears, then stubbornness, then confusion. In the evenings she would pace back and forth in her bedroom until she exhausted herself and then settle down into a chair and busy herself tearing paper. I would watch her form small piles of tiny bits and pieces on the surface of her bed, all done methodically at a snail’s pace. At some point she would halt the process and then begin hiding her collections in drawers, shoes, or coat pockets. Cleaning her room always brought forth new discoveries of these treasures, along with stashed food and other curiosities.
About three years after she came to live with us, Brian sensed that my mother no longer knew who we were. So one day I casually inquired, “Mom, who am I?” She looked at me curiously and replied slowly with a gradual rise in her voice that sounded more like a question than a statement, “A relative by marriage.” Upon further questioning, I also discovered that she had no memory of ever having had a daughter. It was a surreal moment for me as I sat looking at my mother, who I loved, and realizing she was no longer with me; I had lost her.
This was not the only change that we noticed. Sometimes she would rise in the morning and stand with her face towards the wall as if she were waiting for an elevator. If I questioned her, she would explain that she was lost and didn’t know where to go. The afternoons took a turn for the worse as well. Mom began yelling out the window to an imagined person named Stella. She would become quite agitated and distressed over the things Stella was saying to her. We didn’t find out until years later that Stella was her cousin. Some days she would see throngs of people enter her room and then exit with all her belongings. The hallucinations were one of the hardest things to deal with because they left my mother distraught and unconsolable. Thankfully, the memory of them would slowly dissipate, and then the nightly routine of pacing and tearing would begin all over again.
The years were not without their humorous moments. Not too long after she was diagnosed, my mother and I attended a quilt group at our church. Afterwards, there was a lunch for all the women. As we sat at the table discussing current events, my mother chimed in with a story about her friendship with Bill Clinton. She went into great detail about their relationship, how long they had known each other, and how close her family was to his. Everyone present just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
On another occasion, Brian was up the mountain cutting firewood. We had set up a system of walkie-talkies in case of an emergency. One day my mother suddenly fell, taking me to the floor with her. Somehow she landed on top of me yet remained oblivious to what had just taken place. No matter how hard I tried, I could not move her or myself. Thankfully, the walkie-talkie was attached to my belt, and my cry for help brought him quickly to our rescue.