We’re trying to get to Grandmother’s House. We’re trying to take her home, even though she’s lost.
Those of us who love and care for our family members who suffer with Alzheimer’s disease know that when they say they want to go home, it’s unlikely to be the last place they lived. Because they probably can no longer remember that more recent place, and taking them there may instigate even more despair for everyone. Grasping their desires is a moon shot from making them content. They want to go back to when they were seven and felt safe with their parents; to when they were sixteen and flirting with independence; to when they were twenty-four and exploring young adulthood; to when they were thirty-two and involved with marriage, children, and mortgages; to when they were fifty-eight and celebrating the birth of a first grandchild, a child’s marriage, another’s college graduation; to when they were sixty-four and enduring their final career years; to when they were seventy-eight and Alzheimer’s knocked down all the retirement ideas they ever thought possible. All of their life collapsed like a block tower that can’t be rebuilt.
The holiday season arrives wrought with expectations and memories that tangle our celebrations by not meeting our high hopes. No matter how much we declare not wanting presents, parties to attend, and over-the-top fashions, if we’re caring for someone who is ill, we’re likely to have our plans changed, our hopes derailed, and at least one event cut short by a crisis. Tears, anger, aggression, bathroom accidents, bathroom refusals, eating problems, repetitive motions and comments, sleepiness, anxiety, total confusion – they all show up like a beggar at our feet. It isn’t Grandmother’s fault. It can’t be, because someone ill with Alzheimer’s is no longer in charge. The disease is in charge – peculiar and heavy handed, blistering with fever and glittering with promises that can’t be kept. I hate you, they say, I love you. You must not love me or you wouldn’t leave me here. I want to go home. And we, the accused, we cringe and cry and dig our nails into our hearts. We have to leave you here at this assisted living residence because we no longer have the strength or skills to care for you “at home.” Their home, our home, someplace other than the residence where they reside – we can’t.
My friends and I discuss whether or not we’re bringing mom (or dad or our spouse) home for the Christmas Day gift exchange or lighting the Chanukah menorah. If we’ll instead replicate the event at the residence where they are cared for by professionals, then abide the guilt of the empty place at the table, the missing voice of the blessings. Can we enjoy the home celebration when they aren’t there, the absence painfully obvious but so much more sane because they aren’t? Will the rest of the family blame us for their inclusion or exclusion? Will extended family support our decision, knowing we’re crying either way?
We do what we can to reconstruct the holidays and celebrations of the times when we were younger and our loved ones were healthy. Some create second weddings so dad can be present because he couldn’t attend his daughter’s nuptials in Arizona. Others arrange for a caregiver to bring grandma to three hours on Christmas morning so she can see her great-grandchildren unwrap gifts. I’m facilitating a Chanukah dessert party at the place where my mom lives, for her, the other Jewish residents, and anyone who wants to stop by for a cookie.
We put together albums with name tags on the photos so our loved ones whose minds are drifting in and out of reality can identify their spouses, their kids, their closest friends. We collect mementos for the shelf in their room, things they can hold and turn in their hands – the carved shell from the anniversary trip to Hawaii, the bronze award for signing the most contracts twenty years ago, the lifetime membership pin for the service organization to which they’d devoted so many years of altruistic fervor. We coax them to recall names even when they forget them ten seconds later. Even when they are our names. Even when it’s hopeless.
These are the waning years when their moon has left its natural orbit and traverses an alternate route through space. We try to fill their mutilated minds with lifelines and safety nets and touchstones, hoping for memories to be lastingly imprinted. But it is only on our memories they’ll survive, and we wearily know that too, the failures of all our efforts. My mom’s brain will continue to retract, to default to a younger and younger self as she seeks familiarity.
And I’ll find solace in my memories of the occasions when we all gathered to light candles and say blessings for the wealth of our lives. When Mom was well a very long time ago, when my dad was with us. We take our ill loved ones to Grandmother’s House wherever it might be, and there we wait, praying for a few moments of shared joy and the flicker of recognition that makes all the work worthwhile. See you at home, Mom, see you at home.
Note: I’ve written a novel about the devastation Alzheimer’s forces 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.
Image courtesy Pixabay