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, May 23, 2005


I was a bit later than usual arriving this morning and Mother was not only already at the table, but halfway through eating her salad. I always call to tell them I am coming, so they had a place for me right next to her with my salad all ready to go.

The first thing I noticed was that Mother had her hair done. I looked at the schedule they have mounted in the dining room and sure enough, "Hairdresser" was on for 10:30 this morning. I don't honestly know if she has had her hair done there before or not, but certainly not like this. It was at least curled (don't know if it was permed or not) and looked lovely. She always had naturally wavy hair, but in the last year or so it has looked pretty much like straight straw. She looked more herself.

We were seated with Pearl and Velma (who also had visited the hairdresser), the silent duo. They each gave me a half-smile as I said hello and joined them. The whole room was very quiet. Dot busily eating with Russell and Frances, the "mean table" was oddly content with the world, and even Eleanor wasn't saying much. Maybe it is just the literal dampening effect of days of rain. Harold is always quick to finish his meal and be on his way somewhere. He walked by our table and gave a cute wave to Mother. "Down with you," he said. "Down with me?" repeated Mother. She gave his hand a loving pat.

We finished our meal and started back toward her room. On the way I said hello to Frances who grabbed onto my hand and just wouldn't let go. She thanked me over and over again for stopping to talk to her. Her hand and arm shook very noticeably. "I have the shakes," she said. "But I don't have any pain, so given the choice, I'll take the shakes." I said hello to Russell, who showed no trace of recognition and seemed to be in a pleasant fog.

Back in the bedroom, I tried to steer Mother toward the bathroom. She flipped the light switch a couple of times. "I don't think that will work," she said eventually. She gave the dog a pat. Then she started making the rounds of stuffed animals in her room. First it was the stuffed goldfinch made by the Audobon Society. It makes goldfinch sounds when you squeeze it, and she seemed pleased with that. "It's a good one to have if you need one," she said. "Very easy to care for."

Next she went to a row of smaller things seated atop the throw pillows in the chair. Three were stuffed bears, and one was a doll. She was concerned that the doll had not been to the hairdresser. It's hair was pretty much of a mess. I smoothed it out as best I could and we lamented the lack of a ribbon for her hair.

Next she turned her attention back to the dog. "He is always in that exact same position," she said. "He hasn't left that spot in...well...since he's been here." She lay down on the bed and continued. "He does go to the door sometimes to see what sort of creatures are out there, and sometimes he goes up and down the hall. But then he comes right back to his spot." I suggested that he was a good guard dog. "Absolutely," she said. "He keeps me safe."

She reached beside her for the stuffed bear and put it on her lap facing her. She smiled as wide as the moon. "Are there room for any more people in here?" she asked the bear. She made its head bob up and down. "Yes," she said. "There is always more room." Then she put the bear down and took up the elephant. She stroked its trunk and admired its red ribbon. She started to brush its head with her hand, talking about combing its fur. "This should curl up and go over here. He needs the..." she was stuck for a word. "I reach for a word that's not there," she said. And then, with a burst of pride, she said, "Hairdresser."

And well she might be proud. Since I have been with her at The Birches, it is the very first time I have seen her reach for a word with success. Sometimes she trails off with no word at all. Other times she substitutes a generic like "thing" or "stuff" or comes up with something entirely unrelated. But this was true victory. Ignoring for the moment that a stuffed elephant with short hair has no need for a hairdresser, it was the exact word she was looking for, and she found it.

She set the elephant back down beside her and began to talk pretty much non stop. The success with "hairdresser" did not herald an afternoon of clear speech, however, and I had no idea what she was talking about. But there was no stress or concern in her voice, so I didn't worry about it. She was merely relating events in a busy life, and I listened and "uh-huh"ed and allowed that it was all fascinating.

Then Velma walked in. She doesn't live down in that part of the hall, and I don't think I've ever seen her walking around the halls before. Usually she is simply seated with Pearl at the table, whether there is a meal being served or not. They are there before the food comes and they are still there hours after the food leaves, not saying anything at all.

But here she was, strolling into Mother's room and saying hello. She looked at the dog. "They look so real," she said. "Yes," I answered. "I understand it has startled a number of the staff." Velma looked out the window. "It is so dreary," she said. I agreed that it was and asked if there was an activity this afternoon. Mother, never moving from the bed, said, "Yes, it's something to do with signatures." "Your hair looks good," she said to Velma. "It does?" she answered. "All of you looks wonderful," said Mother. Velma looked at the dog again. "It looks so real." She asked Mother, "Does it bark?" "Sometimes," said Mother. "Only if someone is coming." Velma wandered back out of the room.

I think they were connected through the experience of the hairdresser this morning. It was an important word to remember.


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