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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Monday, February 07, 2005

Silent Visit

Back from my Florida vacation, I was anxious to get to the Birches today. Anxious isn't really right...I was excited. I missed Mother, and I wanted to see her. It has been several weeks.

I stopped along the way, since the aides told David yesterday that she needed deodorant. I picked that up, answered the convenience store trivia question for a free cup of coffee (Q: What is the alternate name for the Battle of Bull Run? A: Battle of Manassas), and headed out.

Coming into The Courtyard, Harold was in the dining room and waved at me. I asked how he was doing and he gave me a cheery, "Just fine." People were starting to gather for lunch. When I got to her room she was in the bathroom. I asked if she needed help, but I don't think she recognized my voice. She said "no." She came out a couple of minutes later and brightened up when she saw me. "Well, look who's here!" she said. We hugged, and then she lay down on the bed.

Also on the bed were piles of folded clothes. Apparently they had just done the laundry, but it was not yet put away. With a few minutes left before lunch, I began putting them in her dresser and in the closet. I made the usual check for foreign clothes and found several. Only one had a name in it, however, so I brought the pink blouse back down to one of the aides in the kitchen. She looked at the name, said the woman had died, and indicated that often clothes are donated. The staff divides up donated clothing according to the size and tastes of the residents. So I brought the blouse back to her room.

I made a couple of attempts at conversation. I told her about my trip to Florida...seeing the baby eagle hatched and the baby calf just born. A flicker of interest crossed her eyes and then vanished. I told her I had gotten a contract to write a new book on the Ten Commandments. She looked like she was trying hard, but unsuccessfully, to understand.

By then it was time for lunch, so I got her up and we went down to the dining room. She looked distant...tired...vacant, and tried going in a couple of other rooms before I successfully got her to the dining area. We were at the table where we usually sit, but Harold was at another table. Sitting with us this time was Ruth, asleep in her chair. Carl was not there, and a woman I had not seen before occupied his chair. Dot was there, but amazingly silent. An aide took her away part way through the meal.

As usual, Mother ate all of her salad. I said the salad was pretty good and she responded, "There's a bigger one that comes around once a week when no one is looking." I could see the Gary Larson cartoon...a large, sinister salad creeping around the halls of The Birches.

The main meal came...chicken, roasted potatoes, and mixed vegetables with a small piece of bread. She ate the bread, maybe half the chicken, one forkful of mixed vegetables and a small piece of potato. We didn't talk. There seemed to be nothing to say, and I was afraid that saying anything would distract her from eating. Ruth drifted in and out in the other seat. One of the aides pulled over a chair and fed her, an activity Mother didn't seem to sure about. Fruit cup was on tap for dessert. They mix it with whipped cream, and she at all of that.

When I could see that she was done. I told her what a nice day it was and asked her if she wanted to go for a walk. To my surprise, she said yes. I told her not to leave the dining room, while I went to get her coat. I was afraid if she went back to the room she would lie down and not get up. I came back with the coat and she wanted to go to the bathroom first. So we went to a public one around the corner. Then we went out.

The sun was warm...temps had risen to about 50...and the walk was clear of snow. I said a couple of things...small talk...and they vanished into the air like the melting snow. Our family has never been very good at small talk. We talk about the meaning of Bible passages, about politics, about the state of education or the world. Mother can no longer follow those conversations and so we are silent.

Losing her grasp of the big things has not kindled an interest in the little things. Her personality remains, it is just an icon at the bottom of a computer screen that someone has set to "disable." Like land after a nuclear accident, there is still the desire to produce lush vegetation, but every attempt withers and dies. The area becomes a wasteland.

We came back inside on the upper level and wound our way through those still having lunch up on The Ridge. A woman followed us to the stairs trying to tell me something I couldn't fathom. We turned to go down to The Courtyard. "I'm sorry," said the other woman.

Back in the Courtyard, I tried to steer Mother back toward her room. She circled around the kitchen instead, passed Harold in the dining room, and went to Harold's room. The door was shut and she opened it. "This is Harold's room," I said. She stopped and looked at the name outside the door. "Yes it is," she said, and entered as if it were her own. She went straight to his closet and opened it up, touching and looking over each of the shirts as if shopping. "What are you doing?" I asked. "I need to see if he has..." she trailed off. She started to take a shirt off its hanger. "Harold is already dressed," I said. I tried to guide her out of his room, but she was firmly planted. "We need to go hang up your coat," I said, trying to appeal to her sense of order. She agreed that we did, took it off, and we went out.

Unfortunately we had to pass the dining room to get back. Harold was still there, blissfully unaware of the recent danger to his shirts, and preparing to leave. Mother hooked a right and went after him, following him right back to his room. He came to his door and she went right up beside him. She pointed to the name outside his door. "That's you," she said. Harold paused and read the words. "Well, that's my name, anyway," he said. He opened the door and took in the sights in his room as if he had never seen it before. Mother followed him right in. There were several attempts at conversation, although the sentences did not connect with each other. Finally Mother said to him, "Anne needed to sort out..." and trailed off again. I reminded her that she still needed to hang up her coat, and we bid farewell to Harold. "It will be set up in the morning," said Harold. "Or maybe later."

Back in her room, Mother lay back down on the bed. I settled in with a book to see if she would start to talk. She was soon snoring. A couple of times she sat up, seeming ready to do something, and then she thought better of it and lay down again. She asked the time. It was almost 2 pm. And yet it wasn't. There was no time. It is a place out of time...a place that observes time from the outside like inmates visiting through glass. Alzheimer's is the place where nothing happens...a surreal world where things are set up to appear normal, but the apples are plastic, and the lovely bedroom is really just a display in a store window.

She knows it isn't right. It is least at this point...the fog of oblivion or the happy delerium of some chemical high. It is an evil sort of magic that carries you off to a world that looks like the world you once lived in, but isn't. A world that mocks your inability to engage it and bars the gates to freedom. Silence is a sort of rebellion.


Blogger Gail Rae said...

Once again, although I'm reading backwards and I know you're currently at "a different place", I'm fascinated by your observations, especially in this post, about adjusting to an assisted living facility.

5:44 PM  

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