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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Wednesday, September 06, 2006


What does it mean to visit? I have been to The Birches twice since my last posting, but it's hard to know what to say.

The first time I arrived to find Mother with sevearl other ladies in the TV room. She looked up, "Well, you never know who you're going to see here!" she said with a smile. Next to Mother on the couch was a woman holding a birthday card for someone who had turned 90 years old. Maybe it was hers, maybe not, but she looked at it many times, taking in the beauty of the artwork, but then opening the card to find the inside blank.

Mother, on the other hand, was holding a lovely birthday verse from "Bob and Marcia," with a suspiciously blank front and back. She looked again and again at the blank cover, just as the woman beside her looked again and again at the blank inside. I tried my best to get the two parts of the card back together again, but to no avail. So I settled down in the third place on the couch, next to Mother, and joined in the group activity, which was watching a video of The King and I.

I tried several times to engage Mother in some sort of conversation. She would look at me briefly and then turn her attention back to the TV. I wrestled with whether I should take her back to her room in the hopes of having more real interaction. But then a part of me was grateful for the diversion. As I think about visiting Mother, I always have this bit of anxiety...what will we do? Will we both just sit and stare? What does it mean to visit when you can't have conversation or play a game or, now with her decreased mobility, even take a walk?

I never really had training in how to have visits that didn't involve either doing or saying anything. Of course in my job as a minister I visit non-communicative people in the hospital or in a nursing home from time to time...but I don't stay long. I go in and do something. I hold a hand, pray, and leave.

We stayed and watched The King and I. Others drifted in and out. A woman came by carrying a basket with several things wrapped in towels and facecloths. "I had to do it," she said. "I left everything to my daughters. He wants me dead. He brought me a poison drink, but I was onto him. I poured it out and the fish died." She then went on her way. Another woman who had no signs of dementia that I could detect came in and sat down. "Oh, The King and I" she said within about 10 seconds. She asked me about the weather and was soon joined by a friend who had come to visit. "Come on," she said to her friend, "Let me show you my room." An odd bit of normalcy on the foreign soil of dementia.

A woman with a walker came in and indicated that I was in her seat. So I got up and moved to a nearby chair. The woman with the basket came back through. She stopped to talk to Mother. "Don't worry," she said, "I won't be dead. He won't get me. I'm going to leave everything to my daughters." Mother smiled and nodded. And then it was time for me to leave to get to a 5 pm appointment. Mother still patted the birthday verse from Bob and Marcia beside her. The other woman still looked at the blank insides of her card. The King of Siam still worried about being considered a barbarian, and I had exchanged perhaps ten words with Mother in an hour.

The next time I visited was Labor Day, when we had a family gathering in the private dining room to celebrate David's birthday. We chatted about various events, but I can't recall that Mother spoke a word. Eventually we finished our meal and went up to her room. She has a new cubby to house her ever-growing menagerie of stuffed animals. The aide came in and helped her in the they do each time after meals. Then we took her back out to the common area and she joined in the next activity of the day.

Is that a visit? I don't know. I often teach others about the ministry of presence...just being there with someone, even when no one is speaking or doing much of anything. But is presence one-sided? Did Mother really know that I was there with her watching The King and I? I have no clue. But I do suppose that she knew she was in community. That there were others there with her, reassuring her that there was no danger...except for the guy with the poison drink...and participating in something that normal people do, often with about as much responsiveness.

I don't know if you can call it a visit, but I suspect it is still sacred, no matter how awkward it feels.