Mondays With Mother: An Alzheimer's Story

In 2002 my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It is a hard road, and we live it one day at a time. This is a chronicle of her disease and my Monday visits with her.

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Name: Anne Robertson
Location: Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States
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Saturday, September 25, 2004

The grieving process

That's the strange thing about Alzheimer' grieve a person's death while they stand there in front of you. It took me awhile to realize that I was going through the process of grieving her death. That's not always obvious when you're talking to the person on the phone.

I remember the anger phase. I was angry with my mother for being frail. When she lost so much weight and stopped some of her activities, she became cold often. In the heat of summer, she would show up wearing a sweater, and inside I was furious. I knew rationally that was silly. If she was cold, she was cold...period. I wasn't upset with other people who were cold when I wasn't. But this wasn't other people. This was my mother and she was supposed to be sturdy and vigorous and alive.

As her ability to put together a wardrobe began to fail, I was angry that she began to look like a bag lady. The vibrant, classy dresser now wore things that didn't match in colors that didn't suit her. "Who is this?" I would ask myself. "This is not my mother." I wanted to shake her..."What have you done with my mother?!!"

And then I realized what was going on. Anger is an early stage of the grief process, and that's what I was doing. At some point when I wasn't looking, my mother had died. This was a different person, and I needed to relate to her differently. When I realized that, I cried a lot. I cried at odd times...when I heard a favorite song of hers or when I looked at her. Because of course she is both the same person and a different person. You can't just grieve the dead, because there is this living body that needs care, but the living body is a continual reminder of the one who was dead.

In thinking about that I remembered Dickens' story A Christmas Carol. Remember that one reason Scrooge couldn't deal with his nephew was that he reminded Scrooge of his sister, Fan, who died giving birth to the nephew. I've also known people who have a tough time dealing with children or siblings who bear a strong resemblance to someone who has died. Alzheimer's magnifies those issues. The sight of the body is the visual reminder of what was but is no more. It's hard.

One of the hardest things for me was dealing with it all in church. Of course I am the minister, and she was there every week in the pews...and every time the church was open for any event. Church has always been a huge part of her life--she is the one who gave me faith as a child. My father taught me to boo the New York Yankees, and my mother taught me to pray. But that presented a dilemma. At church, I am at work. I need to be at the top of my form, focused, and ready to meet the demands of a church service or other event. But every time I went, I was confronted with my dead/living mother, having to work through the devastaing emotions. Just try on Ash Wednesday putting ashes on everyone's forehead and saying "Dust you are and to dust you shall return" and then she's standing in front of you, waiting her turn.

As time went on, she would come down to the front to receive communion, but couldn't really understand why she had come. She thought maybe she was just coming to talk with me, and then she couldn't find her way back to her pew. Wanting to scream or cry, I would have to preach instead. It's hard.

I began to remember conversations I'd had with families of Alzheimer's victims when I would do their funerals. "I'm so sorry for your loss," I would say. "Oh," they would answer, "It's a relief, really. We did our grieving long ago." I understand now what they mean.


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