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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Thursday, August 03, 2006

A gift

I headed up to The Birches today, arriving about 2 pm. I found Mother in the TV room with several other ladies. She looked up at me and smiled and said, "Oh, hello!" and I sat down next to her. She had a throw pillow on her lap and was trying to do something unknown with the edging around the pillow. A woman next to her, wearing a straw hat with a huge sunflower on it, decided that she really wanted to have that pillow. So Mother put it down next to the woman and patted it. She looked around the room and counted the chairs aloud. The woman who wanted the pillow asked where she was supposed to be and Mother did her level best to answer, saying something about the three projections on the wall. Both seemed fairly well satisfied with the outcome.

I asked Mother if she could come back to her room for a minute and said, "I have a job for you." She perked right up...having a job seemed almost as good as having ice cream. She needed a bit of help to get up off the couch, but not too much, and we started for her room. We had only moved past one chair when the woman sitting in the next one held out a piece of paper she was reading. "This tells me what to do, but I can't figure it out." She held the paper out to us. It was a song sheet for "In the Good Old Summertime." "It's the verses to a song," I told her. "The worst is wrong?" she asked. It took some time to straighten out.

Mother and I then headed through the dining room where a man was visiting with his wife. It was the same man we had sat with at a birthday party, back in the first few months that his wife had been there...sometime last fall, I think it was. He was quite friendly, and quite fond of Mother.

He looked at her and asked, "Who's that with you, Joanie?" My heart stopped beating. It was the test I've been afraid to give...the question I wanted to know but was too afraid to ask. Does she know who I am? I looked at Mother, bracing for the worst. "This is my daughter," she said without missing a beat. A thousand pounds fell from my shoulders, and a thousand joys sang from my heart. We went on back to the bedroom.

The job I had for her was to sign a birthday card I had picked out for her to give to David, whose birthday is the end of next week. I got one of the yearbooks to write on, sat her down on the bed, and got out card and pen. We read through the card, and I asked her to put "Love, Joan" at the bottom. The last thing printed on the card was "Happy Birthday" and she copied those words. Her writing was a bit shaky, but still legible. Then she wrote "Happy Birthday" yet again under that. "Good," I said. "Now, why don't you write, 'love, Joan'" She did that quickly and easily. "Perfect!" I said. Then she wrote "Furfight." I think that was her version of "perfect"...a homonym of sorts. Then she started copying that word...if it can be called a word. Eventually she felt the card was done and I put it away and will mail it next week.

The stuffed animals in her room are breeding. There are more all the time. She spent quite a bit of time fixing the fur on the skunk's tail. Then she moved the little platypus to be next to the big platypus and picked up the red bear. She read the tag which said it was for collectors. She posed it in a very particular way on one of the chairs saying, "There, now they can find it when they come to collect it."

She picked up a pile of cards and we sat back on the bed and read through many of them...some from last month, others reaching back to her birthday, Easter, Valentine's Day, and Christmas. We talked about the people who sent them, and I gave her some news as we talked. Most of it didn't get much response, until I said that my new church was going to be starting Stephen Ministry. About six light bulbs went on. "Wonderful!" she exclaimed. My new book was passed over with an "Oh," and she just kind of looked at me when I told her about Jarrett and Julie's new baby. But when I mentioned Stephen Ministry, she was back in reality, if only for 20 seconds, and seemed to know exactly what I was talking about. Such an odd disease.

Then she picked up a safety card that for some reason was on her nightstand. She read through all the warnings about not smoking in bed and not letting kids play with matches...and then came the same set of warnings in Spanish. As she puzzled and puzzled over the Spanish, I pulled out her Bible and found a sheet where she had about 8 Psalm numbers listed.

The first was Psalm 89 so I turned to that and started reading. She moved her warning card inch by inch closer to the Bible until it was right over the text. "Where are you reading?" she asked, and I showed her where I was on the page. Then she put the card aside and read along with me. We finished the Psalm and she put her card in the Bible as a bookmark. Then I asked her if she wanted to have a prayer, which she did. So I prayed with her, then hugged her and cried for a bit.

She got up from the bed without assistance, and on my way out, I brought her back down to the dining room where the man and his wife and several others were still seated.

She was there today. I could still find her. And she knew me. I am still her daughter. How much longer?


Anonymous Deb Peterson said...

Anne--This entry is so moving. You've helped me to see that there is still meaning for your Mom and those who live with her. It might be mysterious to us, but they are finding it in the everyday objects and routines of their lives. My mother loves her greeting cards, too. Whenever she gets one she tapes it to the wall--I think she finds them not only nice to look at, but also a visible way of keeping track of her past. Periodically I do what you did--go over them with her and remind her who sent them. It's a real learning experience for me, as cliched as that sounds.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Anne Robertson said...

Deb, The greeting cards are helpful on a number of counts. Since her past is also my past, I find cards from old family friends, some of whom obviously don't know that she really can't respond. So I've been back in touch with some people from our family past by responding to the cards.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous michaelm said...


I agree 100% with Deb, moving.
I'm visiting tonight in the hopes that you would consider joining an Alzheimer Webring. Deb and I are currently both members. If it works out right, this website could prove to be a valuable resource for caregiver's worldwide. I know, big dreams.
Check Deb's blog for more info or contact me personally. I'll be back soon to read some more. So much to do...


7:30 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

I've only just found your weblog, and so far have read only this one entry. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to comment; I thought it presented such a very good picture of how the sane and chaotic are juxtaposed with Alzheimer's. I look forward to reading much more.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Gail Rae said...

Although I can't tell you why, Anne, for some reason this reminds me of the title of a book by Robert Cormier, "I Am the Cheese". Although it's been a long time since I've read the book (even though Cormier is/was, he died a while back, one of my very favorite authors), I remember that the central character is a young man with a profound mental disturbance. Anyway, metaphorically, the upshot of the story is, "...the cheese stands alone."
Although my mother is far from standing alone in the demented sense and probably far from not recognizing me (although, who knows, she could conceivably, stroke out and suddenly discover the "cheese" part of herself) I think a lot about what it will be like if my mother and I become psychically separated, despite my desire to see to it that she and I are physically together to the end of her life. Although I expect to experience shock if this happens, when I contemplate this possibility I also am awestruck by the separation from human community that deep dementia often appears to cause for those who find themselves "in that country". There is something, hmmmm...fundamental, I guess, about being "the cheese", you know. Each of us actually is "the cheese", unless, of course, we're Buddhist monks who have achieved enlightenment, and yet most of our lives are spent thinking we're something other than cheese, making sure we feel as though we're something other than cheese. Thus, I sometimes wonder if there is, finally, a sense of deep peace in being confronted with our cheeseness. Maybe, just maybe, this state allows us to directly experience That by Whom We Were Created and to Whom We Return.
Just a thought.

12:44 AM  

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