Along with the coming of this new year was the realization my mother would have been 100 years old this June. I do not regret she did not live to see this birthday, because she stopped being Minnie at about age 78 when dementia robbed her of just about everything she enjoyed. I will never forget the day I realized my mother was no longer always at home in her body or mind. I had noticed small changes, some confusion on occasion and short term memory lapses, but with a busy life and demanding career, I somehow had not realized the significance. Then one day, I stopped into Shear Paradise, a small hair salon in Taylorsville, to give Mom a message. She had been dropped off there by my stepfather who had gone on to run errands. I sat with her and we chatted for about ten minutes or so. She smiled pleasantly while waiting for her turn to have her hair “done,” which was her routine each Saturday as it was for many women of her age in that era. When I got up to leave, she took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Honey, I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.” I was shocked beyond belief and after introducing myself to my own mother, I sat in my car and cried while my heart was breaking. Never had I considered this happened to folks nor how it would feel.
In many ways Alzheimer’s Disease robbed her of the simple pleasures of daily life, such as looking forward to visits, savoring memories of those visits and sharing the events of her lifetime. In other ways it may have protected her from the knowledge of losses she had experienced, such as the death of my father just before his 70th birthday when she was only 61. However, in a misguided effort to orient her, I honestly answered her questions repeatedly. “Is Richard gone? Did Leroy (my stepfather) die, too? Can’t Mom and Dad visit me one day soon?” Over and again, I reinforced her loved ones were dead, her parents could never come to see her. It was cruel that she had to hear this sad news repeatedly. If I had it to do over, I would dodge such questions and say whatever might have reassured her. Truth, usually important, was not under these circumstances, I realized too late.
Mom always had a good sense of humor. She liked to laugh. She didn’t mind being teased, in fact probably enjoyed it, as long as folks were laughing with her. She also liked to sing and did not let lack of training or talent discourage her. Some of these personality traits endured in perverse ways even as dementia robbed her of memories. Once in the 90s when we were visiting her, the television news was blaring in her room. There was a great deal of coverage regarding the current president’s personal affairs and Mom seemed very interested in following the reporting. When I suggested we turn the TV off, or at least lower the volume, she protested she needed to see President Clinton, insisting there was something she wanted to give him. When one of her visitors asked what she wanted to give to the President of the United States, she replied, “An enema!” I never figured out if this was serious or her way of entertaining the room full of visitors, but she laughed along with us as I assured her probably many Americans would be in favor of her gift for the President.
On another occasion there was a talent show at the nursing home and Minnie chose to sing, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn she knew well from all the years she had attended church. While she was singing her heart out a cappella, one of the other residents kept interrupting. He seemed to have taken a coughing fit that worsened the longer the hymn kept going. I’m not sure he was the only one who was reacting adversely to Minnie’s singing. After about three verses, Minnie stopped, slowly unfolding her hands and then placing them on her hips. She then shouted at the top of her lungs, “SHUT UP!” A slow murmur rose, turning into a hearty laugh rippling through the caregivers present and Minnie’s solo became the talk of the place for days to come.
Dementia affects 13.9 percent of people age 71 and older in the United States*. There is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s Disease or any other form of dementia, but it is a fact of life and as Americans live longer and baby boomers make up a larger portion of the population we must learn better how to deal with it as families and as a society. This is just a tiny bit of information about our experience and I believe Minnie would not mind my sharing her stories if it might help you to deal with this tragedy in a more hopeful manner. Please feel free to comment about your own firsthand knowledge on this subject.