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Archive for the ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ Category

The Calm after the Storm

I broke down in the supermarket the other day, in the greeting card aisle, looking at Rosh Hashanah cards. This will be the first year I observe Jewish High Holy Days without either of my parents. Just seeing the cards wishing peace and a healthy year to come tore me apart.

Other things unexpectedly lance my gut – the scent of coffee as both my parents could not face the day without a cup or two. The sight of the ocean as we’d lived near the Atlantic on the New Jersey shore or the Pacific in both Hawaii and California. The chirping, twittering sounds of birds as my dad ushered us through rain forests and woods, identifying avian species. The feel of hot wind against my skin, recalling the clutch of Alabama’s unforgiving broiling weather when I lived there as a kindergartner. Pierced constantly, I bleed all over the place.

I look at a pink blouse in Macy’s, thinking how much my mom would like it, maybe I should… then it comes back to me – no need to buy it for her. The same effect on spotting a new crossword puzzle book at CVS, solving puzzles together a favorite pastime when she was alive. The Alzheimer’s that held her in its long noose for so many years is finally over – she passed in late March. Still my emotional pain is ebbing – mom is no longer in the horrific physical pain that stalked the last year of her life, and that’s a good thing. My blood stanches.

I dreamed of my parents standing next to each other, gazing at the Pacific. Their last home was a condo that overlooked the ocean, nothing in front of their window but train rails along the beach and the swelling turquoise sea. My dad had one arm around my mom, the other around me, united again at last.

I know our dreams are personal manifestations of the world as we experience it, filtered through our sleeping subconscious mind. Still, I felt tranquil in that moment, knowing I had done everything I could to care for my ill mom in a way my dad could accept after he died nearly ten years ago. I believe in the survival of the soul – my dream might be a message from the world to come, from the sacred essence that survived the deaths of their corporeality.

Over the last decade, I’ve had a loving, supportive family holding me up. A son and daughter-in-law moved aside like cars in the way of a fire truck, allowing me respite with their two children. My grandchildren, who loved their great-grandmother, not realizing she was ill. She was their Gigi, and they accepted her quixotic inability to remember their names, always knowing she would shower them with kisses and hugs. My grandchildren softened the shredded edge of my worries with play, stories, and antics that allowed me serenity.

Another son and daughter-in-law, living far from us, knew when I needed a phone call. The cell tower network (we are so very fortunate to live in an era of global communication access) leap frogs hundreds of miles so I could contact our two youngest grandchildren. I listened to their baby talk until their babbling chatter over the years became words, then sentences, and finally full throttled conversations about dinosaurs, gymnastics class, and the funny bugs in the yard. To be immersed in such presence is a holy moment.

My husband put up with my despair and commiserated about the injustice of a disease that dismantled my mother’s social and logic skills. He endured me fuming about the legal, health, and financial worries that woke me in the middle of the night like lions hunting on African grasslands, the threat of attack imminent. A husband who visited his mother-in-law without a prompt from me, always with a fresh bouquet of blooms to remind her that she was someone important to him, even when she no longer had any idea who he was. He soothed me back to sleep.

Friends inflated a flotation jacket around me, keeping me from drowning. Some are people I’ve known forever, living near enough for a hug fest, others only close enough for a sobbing phone call late at night. My friends are a bulwark of ears and shoulders, one limb to turn my verbal outrage into sense, the other a net to catch my emotional free fall. Many are family members of other sufferers of Alzheimer’s. We are an alliance of wisdom and folk stories about how to limit the devastation of the disease, both the physical impact on those who are ill and the emotional toll that forces family into no man’s land. All of it is about loss, confusion, and righting a leaky craft. They remain steadfast for me as I do for them.

Alzheimer’s is a shipwreck foundered on alien shoals. But I am learning to jump ship, skip the waves, and wade in the shallows. To smile. To sleep through the night. To feel the consolation that my parents’ long journeys are over, that mine will be an easier trek each new day. There is laughter again, friendship, love, family, and calm after the storm.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Image of California coastline courtesy of Pixabay

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The Terrain of the Long Road

It’s been five months since my mom died, nearly ten years since my dad passed. I’ve only started to grieve both of them, appropriate since once they decided to truly stick together (thank God for Marriage Encounter) they were rarely apart. That was well into their marriage, the first twenty-five years packed like a Molotov cocktail with vitriol and blame, the last thirty-six jammed with hand holding and secrets. Also affection, maybe love, and a charmed social appearance that fooled the world. Which meant there was no place for me until I was needed by my mother’s side after my dad died.

My mom suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, the condition from which there’s no respite and only one ultimate outcome. Long before we identified the alien craters of her brain as the vestiges of a decimating disease, I knew she also bore the scars of full throttle psychosis from childhood, a mental health condition that colored her with crazy glue and nearly destroyed me. It took years and years for me, first of hiding, then of admitting, then of sharing (too much, way too much,) to finally begin to heal. I will be seventy-years-old on Labor Day – I have only begun to understand, only begun to heal, but at least I have that.

In the 117 years since Alois Alzheimer identified the disease, they (the scientists, doctors, clinicians) have made virtually no progress in finding a cure, a prevention, or even an effective interruption in the progress of the disease. The study of why the brain constructs this weird labyrinth of reduced communicative skills and thunderous retreat to childhood has flat lined.

The newest research shows that they know next to nothing after all, and the promised cure around the bend is a long way from a pill or a plan. So much for prophecy. Instead it’s a long flat road, getting flatter as they travel, sticking needles into volunteers, taking MRI’s, prescribing pills, diets, and regimens. It’s the brain after all, the most mysterious and complex of human organs. Let us in, the scientists beg, but the brain smiles its twisted spheres and holds tight its secrets, a snarky Cheshire Cat. Drink me, it answers and grins, the key too hard to reach. It’s a long way down the rabbit hole and no easy climb back up. It hardly matters to my parents. They are both gone.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross identified five stages of grief at the loss of a loved one. They have nothing to do with me. I’m not following her order. I’m wallowing in all of them at once and more that she never mentioned. Because part of the process of grief is coming to terms with the history of yourself and the person who died.

When my father died, I had no opportunity to grieve. True grieving is, after all, a luxury. There must be time to sit on the sofa and cry all night long, to wander the back alleys looking for something more dangerous than what you’re already enduring, to drink yourself into a stupor and fall naked into someone’s bed, to kneel at a grave and keen the loss. I didn’t have that time. I had a mother whose plunge into Alzheimer’s made rubble of my time. Of me. She needed me as her legal advocate, her appointment transportation, her entertainment committee, her financial warrior, and sometimes her confidante. For while I had no time, she had all the time.

Nothing pressed on mom to get things done. Paying rent, shopping for toothpaste, washing blouses, making dinner, even bathroom assistance – it was all provided. Since the progress of her illness had been identified by her physician as much more severe than I’d realized, (remember, I said my parents had crafted a social appearance to fool the world) I’d been forced to place her in a memory care residence. Not now will I discuss the emotional massacre of removing someone from the privacy and luxury of their own home to an institution, no matter how much safer it is for them. Understand, please, that it robbed me of years of sleep, loaded me with stress as thick and dangerous as the carbs and salt in a family size pizza, deprived me of common sense decision making for my own life, and saddled me with nightmares that segued into daymares – as if I could sleep at all. That was how my time was spent – worrying, second guessing, researching, and driving all over the place because of responsibilities to mom, to my family, and to the trust that paid her expenses.

She spent her time mulling as much as her disease allowed; otherwise she allowed me to function for her. I made myself present in her life, visiting four to five times a week, four to six hours a visit, doing everything I could to make her believe that her life hadn’t changed since her husband had died. A person with Alzheimer’s cannot grieve. They cannot process information or internalize new experiences and move on, they cannot abide by Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ routine. They cannot remember. My mom asked every day when he was coming back, and every time I tried to explain and provide a spiritual reference for comfort. It didn’t stick. So she’d ask again and I’d explain again or try to distract her or simply moan.

And this is where I stand today. Finally sobbing over the deaths of my parents. For while they did not die on the same day, they both died for me when my mom passed on March 30, 2018.

There is no cure around the bend for Alzheimer’s, only the deathly flatness of the road, like farmland tilled and plowed for hundreds of years, land made flatter and flatter as crop after crop is planted and harvested. Still growing tomatoes or corn or strawberries. Still researching and testing with no viable results.

It’s a long road ahead of me, full of trenches, crumbled surfaces, clutching mud. I face a perilous journey before I am fully able to forgive, apologize, move forward, to lay my head on their graves and know it will be OK. I am grieving now.

 

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Black and white image of grief courtesy CCO Public Domain

 

 

 

From Art Caves to Alzheimer’s

 

This is the story of how a book about World War II sealed the friendship between me and the woman who gave me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go?

It begins with The Caves of Perigord by Martin Walker. I read it because it describes some of the prehistoric cave art discovered in France, a topic this artist and art teacher has always found fascinating. The exquisite shard of ancient art is only a part of the story, as the novel reveals the dangerous work of the French Resistance during World War II. When I finished the book I gave it to my friend, Madeleine Nussen.

I was a novice Hebrew teacher, barely two weeks ahead of the kids in skills. Madeleine was experienced and fluent at the same temple school, and she graciously mentored me when I got stuck, which was about once a class. After she read the book, she told me something I hadn’t known.

The book tells in part how the Nazis forced French citizens to sit on the front and top of reinforcement and supply trains in order to deter the French Resistance from bombing them as the invaders subjugated France. Allowing the trains to pass meant a more likely victory for the Nazis, but sabotaging the trains meant certain death for those who rode the trains as hostages.

Madeleine quietly relayed her personal story when she returned the book. She was a Holocaust survivor, her father a fighter with the Resistance. At least once, teenage Madeleine sat on the actual train, exposed and vulnerable. Her father saw her and did not bomb the train.

I knew of course the historical foundation of the book. But that moment when she described her part as a hostage, the enemy trains stormed around us. The wind roared like a cyclone, the acrid steam burned my face. A story that would have made me screech in fury, she relayed with her trademark composed dignity.

A few years later the temple held a dinner my husband and I attended with my parents. My father had quietly told me a family secret I was forbidden to share. I kept the promise. My mother, always a gregarious showstopper, made instant friends with the four other guests at our table, which included Madeleine. My mom loved the limelight and the event gave her the chance to perform. Mom chattered as deftly as if holding court, the other guests enchanted by her. My father expressed irritation after a while, and mom quieted down.

Months later, I noticed Madeleine looking weary, an emotion she rarely conveyed. When I asked if everything was OK, she told me about her beloved husband, also a Holocaust survivor and a renowned cantor. Now he was living in a facility for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, losing more and more of his identity and sense of presence every day. Madeleine was devastated because his most recent decline meant he no longer knew who she was – nor who he was. The Nazis had not defeated him, but his illness had.

It must have been because of Madeleine’s dignity that I felt comfortable enough to tell her my secret, despite my promise. “My mom has Alzheimer’s.”

“I know,” Madeleine said.

In the hallowed quiet between us, I realized she had spotted my mom’s illness at the dinner party. What my father and I thought was hidden as long as we told no one, was easily detected by Madeleine with her long experience in dealing with her husband’s disease.

Over the next years, Madeleine was a willing listener to my concerns and worries. Sometimes she gave great advice. Sometimes she just listened and let me vent my frustration, confusion, and rage. Always, she was a friend who kept my confidence and my mother’s secret.

My dad died nine years ago, my mom’s disease still so well hidden that some family members didn’t detect it. At his death, it became obvious that mom could not live at home, and I made the heartbreaking decision to place her in a memory care residence.

I regret my action every day of my life because it forced my mother out of her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean into a locked facility. There was no other way to keep her safe, to have her needs met 24-7 by a compassionate, professional staff.

I was already writing novels long before my dad passed, but my stories had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s. It took all my strength to deal with my mom’s mutable and fractured condition. I often drove to the residence in tears, knowing the woman I headed to visit was losing parts of herself as if she were a pillow ripped open, feathers strewn to the heavens. I often drove home sobbing about how the disease attacked my mom and left her tattered. I was too close to the volatile situation to be able to write about it, so I never tried.

Madeleine passed away about three years ago. Her death was painful for her family and friends, her loss palpable as a burn on flesh.

About two years ago I realized I knew more than many other people who needed, sometimes desperately, to find a safe place for mom or dad or husband or wife to live. Their loved ones who suffered with Alzheimer’s. I consoled, gave advice, and listened to the newbies, all of them wondering if they had made the right and the best decision.

Eventually I thought of Madeleine’s courage. A survivor of the Holocaust who had started her life again in a new country, a loving daughter, wife, and mother, a talented musician, a gifted teacher, and a compassionate confidante, she modeled for me that not only could I tell this story, I could show that living with this disease is miserable but possible. That being an involved advocate for the one you love is more important than making the perfect choice because there is no perfect choice.

Madeleine never knew I wrote a story about Alzheimer’s, but without her friendship I might not have done so.

Madeleine Nussen, zt’l. May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing. Thank you for giving me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go? I miss you but I carry you in my heart.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited. Then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Prehistoric art, Bison, Altamira Cave in Spain, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

 

Coming Back to You

I’ve been away from this blog far longer than intended and was not sure how to return. Still sitting here in my house working at the computer, but not here on the blog. What do I say to those of you who’ve stayed in touch and sent notes of encouragement while maintaining the respect not to ask what’s taking me so long? How much do I reveal, how much do I keep private, even secret?

A long list of topics and partial articles waits to be written or completed. My anemic advice about writing, my head-over-heels book reviews, the Just a Thought series, and the longer articles that peek into my own history or divulge my current interests and run parallel to the subjects of my books. Same-same as what’s been on this blog in past, just more of.

I had a mom who suffered Alzheimer’s disease but my promise to her was to not write about her, her dignity and pride to remain private. “My Mom” in all my articles was someone else’s mom – or dad, husband, wife – in disguise. You don’t know my mom because she wouldn’t have wanted you to see her like that. So I promised her you wouldn’t, even though she was unaware of the promise.

I really wanted to write more on what I’ve learned about Alzheimer’s disease as an observer, as an anecdotist. My studies are personal and also lies. Personal because I sat by her side, watched, listened, interacted, cried, and pondered. Lies because when I told you stories about Mom, I made them up.

You might have figured out that Mom is deceased. Yes. All I’m going to say. Except…

This was not what I imagined when I first announced my Quiet Time. I thought I’d actually have an extended period to contemplate and reconsider, to rewrite my direction, to refocus Mom’s attention.

Death has its own way of reorganizing priorities. Instead of planning new activities geared to Mom’s newest state of presence, I planned a funeral, a shiva, a way to say good-bye, a propensity for getting lost, a need to be forgiven, and a means of going forward.

Today Mom would be 90 years old. A good gift for a 90-year-old might be a coupon book good for snuggles and kisses and walks in the park. A new blouse and a fragrant bouquet of pink peonies. A candlelit cake to defy dietary restrictions.

In Mom’s case a perfect gift would be a memory she could hold on to. Something from her childhood, like the day she glowed in the class spotlight for the story she’d written. Her first kiss, tasted years before she met my Dad. A new dress purchased with money she earned at her teenage job at the five and dime store. Any memory would do, even something I exaggerated or made up. Just to give a memory to someone with Alzheimer’s is the most incredible gift one can imagine.

Pay attention to that word incredible. Its weight throws the scale into panic, its force throws the dike wide open. Memory is the first lost cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Victims make up their lives anew and family members learn to play along because arguing in favor of truth never aligns with reality.

The ninetieth birthday party wasn’t necessary. Mom almost but in the end didn’t get that far. There will be no cake or gifts or photos. Mom was buried in the white lace blouse she would have worn to her party. She looked beautiful, and this I’m not making up. She looked ready to get up and blow out those 90 candles.

I’m coming back now. Back to writing on this blog. Back to writing books, querying agents, pleading for mercy, and all the other mishegoss on the potholed path to publication.

Back, to see Mom in a new light. Happy Birthday to you, Mom. I’m celebrating your life today.

Love you, Mom.

Miss you.

Shari

 

Photo from Bonin-Pratt family archives: Mom, Dad, me at 4, baby brother, Hawaii 1953

 

This is the Wrong Post

I planned to write about the majestic launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. I didn’t want to write this story.

I’m mad. Angry and insane with grief. I want to throw the computer across the room, tear out the plastic cartridges that hold the ink, drag the printer down the street till it shatters into a thousand pieces. Then I wouldn’t be able to tell this story.

This is a story of death. Four people died this past week. Four people I know and love. The doctor, the mother, the judge, and the animal rescuer.

The doctor was the father of my friend. I taught my friend’s children at our temple. She proved to be a parent on whom I could count to bring cookies, to call other parents, to compliment me on the lesson. She made sure her son and daughter were well prepared. We shared confidences. I looked up to her as someone whose low key demeanor belied her inner strength. We spoke often about our dads, each of us proud of these two men who were family physicians – heroes to us. I don’t know about her genetic inheritance but it is evident her father impressed on her a strong work and community ethic. He raised a good person who became a good friend to me. My hero has been gone nearly ten years. Now hers is gone also, a tragic catch-up of circumstances.

The mother lived at the memory care residence where my mother lives. Her daughter is my friend. My friend’s mother bequeathed her remarkable beauty to her daughter, also her grace and composure. My friend’s mother did not speak often but she always looked at me with a smile and sparkling eyes. She and my mom shared meals together, afternoons of music, discussions, or games, and casual walks around the gardens, happy to be in each other’s presence. I’m not certain my mom will realize she’s lost another friend. When you have Alzheimer’s, it’s the blessing of the disease that you cannot remember who your friends are or when they are gone. I’ve been holding my friend’s hand as she remembers her mother before the disease.

The judge was a family friend. Forty years ago, his mother- and father-in-law danced with my parents every week. Thirty years ago I drove his older daughter to Hebrew school with my son. Fifteen years ago he married my older son to the loving woman who bore our two older grandchildren. Ten years ago, his younger daughter became friends with my nephew at the party we threw for my parent’s sixtieth anniversary. Two years later my father, the doctor, died. The calendar marched in step with the moments that annotated our families’ lives. Important moments in three generations were shared as if we were family. In a few days we will bury the judge only a few yards from the doctor’s grave.

It is the final death, of the animal rescuer, K, that is killing me. She died last night after a nearly five year battle with very aggressive cancer. My younger son’s wife, our daughter-in-law, has lost her mother. She treated my son as her son. My younger grandchildren have lost the woman who watched them every Wednesday so my daughter-in-law could work. She got to know our shared grandson, now four, and our shared granddaughter, only two. She underwent surgeries, chemotherapy rounds, and traditional and experimental drug protocols, trying to find a cure, or at least gain more time.

When K was well she ran a wild creature rescue service. She was respected in her community as a fiercely independent spirit with an intellect as bright as lightning. She had many, many friends. She and her husband were active in their church, and lifelong advocates for social justice. I only got to meet her a half dozen times as they live more than a ten hour drive away from us. Not the kind of situation where you can drop in on someone frequently. But I enjoyed every moment I got to be with her.

She struggled. We prayed. I wish she’d had more time – for all of the family, more time. I grieve for my children and grandchildren whose grief is unbearable.

At the end of the evening, a few hours after hearing of the deaths of the judge and the animal rescuer, when I thought I’d shed all the tears my body could muster, we watched NBC’s  This Is Us. It was the episode about the funeral of the father. A TV show, reminding me of four actual upcoming funerals. From the launch of a rocket to the funeral of a television character, the day has collapsed from elation to sorrow. I really didn’t want to write this story. Please imagine something majestic.

 

A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rage and Reason

Candace asks for another cookie and when denied because it’s so close to dinner time, she wails the annoying cry recognized the world over as brat syndrome. She’s two and a half years old, and her self-centered demands come with the territory of preschoolers.

James also asks for another cookie and when denied because it’s so close to dinner time, he lets off with a string of foul language demands. He’s eighty-seven years old and his unfiltered anger comes with the territory of one who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Candace will grow up to become an engineer or a software developer or an astronaut. James* was a Major General in the United States military, and worked at NASA developing critical rocket defense systems. I sobbed at his memorial because I’d never gotten to know the brilliant man in his prime and only met him when the disease that eventually killed him had reduced him to behaving like a toddler.

You may think that Alzheimer’s only affects those with a low IQ, or who eat like sumo wrestlers, or who lie around on the sofa all day clicking the remote and guzzling diet sodas. It doesn’t. It’s an equal opportunity monster that drags victims from every demographic and forces them into the pit of loss of executive function. Loss of every human function. When we discuss the disease, we’re talking about traumatic brain dysfunction moving people backwards. We forget their achievements and focus on the bathroom problems, the odd clothing choice problems, the inability to communicate effectively problems. We focus on the problems because they are always front and center.

Pearl walks out of the dining room, her purse stuffed with essentials like socks, a scarf, comb and brush, and bedroom slippers. She has only taken a bite of her lunch but now stands at the reception desk of the community residence where she lives insisting that her daughter is coming to take her home. The receptionist reminds Pearl, for the fourth time (the seventh, the fourteenth) that her daughter went home after visiting in the morning. Pearl curses the receptionist, declares her daughter doesn’t love her, and wants to phone the police to complain about the service at this awful place. I ask if she’s had dessert yet. When her eyes open wide at that word, I lead her back to her seat and encourage her to take a bite of her meal, promising that she’ll have ice cream soon. She’ll be up in another minute or so, back at the front desk demanding to phone her daughter and insisting she doesn’t live at this place. I know she does – she’s my mom’s roommate.

Gladys’ hair is coiffed in a silver cap of curls, her jacket and slacks are highlighted with a string of glass art beads, her pedicured toes peak out from open front silver flats. She was a model when younger and walks with grace. A few days ago she mumbled unintelligible speech to me and I answered with pleasantries suited for any occasion. I wasn’t prepared when she quickly got up from her chair, cast me a look of fury, grabbed my coffee mug, and tried to throw it at me. I managed to hold on to the mug so only a tiny bit of the hot brew splashed on another resident. Her husband has told me she owned her own business for more than two decades and made decisions that her employees complied with.

Melvin wants to go to the bank. He’s concerned about his taxes and shows me his briefcase. Inside are a blank yellow legal pad and two pens. He asks if I know the bus schedule so he can be on time. I take his arm and lead him to the table where a jigsaw puzzle is half put together. We sit down and find a corner piece and two other pieces that fit together. When I leave five minutes later, he’s peering intently at the puzzle and holding pieces in each hand, trying to figure out where they fit. His briefcase sits on the chair next to him, his taxes forgotten. He used to be a high school math teacher much beloved by his students.

This is the everyday world of Alzheimer’s sufferers. It’s a realm of behavioral inconsistencies – from intelligence to gibberish, from reason to meltdown, from joy to confusion, anger, and rage. Those of us who love them, family members and caregivers, struggle to engage and care for them. We try not to raise hackles, to antagonize, to remind them that they should “know better.” It’s we who must know better. We sons and daughters, husbands and wives, have become their parents and bosses. We hate the job.

I will always remember James, the man who was involved in our space program at NASA. The man who had become a child by the time I met him but who always greeted me with a smile. I remember all of the men and women who once were someone else.

 

*James, like all the residents whose lives I’ve presented here, is based on a real person whose true identity I will not reveal.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

 

Photo of pier and ocean courtesy CCO Creative Commons, not requiring attribution

 

 

 

Open Me First

The holiday dilemma: what do you get for the person who has everything?

Perhaps something goofy like slippers that sing Rock Around the Clock, or something extravagant like a set of diamond encrusted napkins rings, the kind of thing that becomes an expensive party joke. Maybe a bauble like a garden statue of lighted snowmen or a set of holiday themed coffee mugs, useless most of the year because, well, they’re holiday themed and who wants to drink coffee in July with Rudolph’s red nose stenciled on it? We can get truly original: a dozen bottles of wine with personalized labels, Humphrey Malarkey Family Reserve Chardonnay, so it looks like Uncle Humph became a boutique vintner on Christmas Eve.  Another possibility is the very exclusive Himalayan Cilantro Sea Salt Spa Scrub with Acai Crystals – imagine how much fun Great Aunt Agnes will have trying to figure out if she should eat the stuff or bathe in it.

My favorite is the two-pound box of Belgian dark chocolate covered bacon bits because dark chocolate is so good for you and bacon bits are not very good for you but, hey, they’re bacon bits – you get it, right? These are the kinds of gifts we consider when we must give something to a person who can afford to buy a new car for each of their nephews and nieces and then pay all the speeding tickets they rack up. Because people who have everything have, well, everything, and anything we might buy is nothing they need and that’s the whole point.

So now we come to the other side of the gift list, the folks who have nothing and need it all. You know what to do about gifting the less fortunate – write a check and deposit it at your favorite charity. Someone is always in genuine need and your check will do wonders for those lacking anything wonderful in their lives.

But what about gifts for another group that’s nearly impossible to choose something for? What about mom or dad or husband or wife who has Alzheimer’s – what do you get people with fragile health and declining mental faculties? At the memory care residence where my mom lives, I notice the usual solutions: a bouquet of roses or potted bamboo twig for their rooms; a warm scarf or some funny socks; a box of shortbread cookies or a bag of gourmet pretzels; cologne or hand lotion; a costume bracelet or sweater vest. All of them are useful and will be appreciated to a degree, but none will fulfill the most desired wishes of the person who is ill. What they really want, and what you really want to give, is restored health. But you can’t.

Here then is the solution to both giftee dilemmas: The very best present you can give is yourself. To someone richer than Midas or ill with an incurable disease, following are the presents they will all love.

Spend time with them. Commit to an extra hour at each visit, an extra day each month. Worth about a million bucks and comes with bragging rights. My daughter-husband-son-wife is here with me because they love me. No dazzling outfits required, no ticket reservations, just sitting next to your loved one in comfy sweats is fine.

Do an activity you can share. Work an easy crossword puzzle or play Bingo or watch an old movie or take a twenty minute walk in the garden or frost sugar cookies or sing the songs they love or make snowman decorations out of cotton balls with them. It’s the with them part that’s the gift and it’s free.

Make a memory bank. Put together a photo album or collage with name tags to identify their family and closest friends. Listen to their delighted comments as they turn the pages or point at pictures. This is so much richer than a traditional financial investment, and the dividends can be spent over and over without ever depleting the assets.

Take them for a safe and simple outing. A half hour drive through the woods or along the lakefront or by the seashore or around a neighborhood where the houses are festooned with holiday lights is a wonderful change of pace. Point out the ordinary and extraordinary with equal delight because they’ll see everything with equal delight.

Be old school. Send a snail mail letter. I’ve watched folks open cards and letters, running fingers over the words, putting them back in the envelopes and pulling them out again,  over and over and over, grinning the whole time. Even if you can’t be there, even if you can, even if they can no longer read, send a card with a pretty image or a letter with a photograph. Write the word love, sign your name. The best stamp you’ll ever stick.

Share the stories of their youth. Remind them of when they were young and if they can, encourage them to tell you more than you knew before, even if the stories they tell are tall tales. Special events like weddings, births of babies, career advancement, and vacations generate hundreds of topics to discuss. It doesn’t matter if they call their husband their father, their sister their best friend, or you by your hated birth certificate name, or if they get dates and places mixed up. You don’t need to correct errors (who cares?) but you can add your own comments as you build moments in the present with remembrances of the past.

Neither very rich nor very ill folks need more stuff to fill closets. They need stuff to fill their hearts. Yours will fill as well. It’s the Open Me First present and it’s the absolute best. And wait till you see those smiles as they enjoy their favorite gifts of the season.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Gift box image courtesy Pixabay.com