Memories have always fascinated me. If two people take part in the same event and then describe it, they will emphasize different aspects, based on their perspective. Over time, our tendency to edit out the bad and highlight the good (or vice versa) comes into play. After the passage of many years, if you ask the same two people to recall the memory, you may think you’re hearing about two separate events.
When I was a teenager and my grandmother was in her sixties, she developed Alzheimer’s, although that term wasn’t used much at that time. I loved to hear her tell stories about her childhood as a child of German immigrants in rural Pennsylvania with laser-sharp focus. However, it was scary when she forgot things in the present, like turning off the gas on the stove or the water in the chicken house. I’ll never forget the weekend the whole family had to don our hip boots and throw the bodies of the drowned chickens in the incinerator.
My parents are now a couple decades older than Grandmom was, and I find myself traveling down the same path. This time feels harder. Perhaps that’s because the relationships are closer and I’m the local caregiver. Or because there are two of them.** (Disclaimer at the end)
About ten years ago, my dad had a small stroke followed by a whopper. Apparently he had another small one just before Christmas that immediately caused a form of dementia called Vascular Dementia. Only certain brain functions have been affected. He is never sure where he is, and it’s very disorienting and frightening to him. Most days he thinks he’s in his childhood home in Pennsylvania. The geriatrics doctor described it like a Christmas tree with lots of lights and a few bulbs go out. The bulbs can never be re-lit.
Every time I see him (every day unless he’s napping), he asks how I got there. He thinks he’s in Prospect Park, but I’m not sure where he thinks I’m coming from.
“Did you come by railroad today?”
My house is a nine-minute drive away.
“No, I decided to drive.”
“You did? How long did that take you?”
“It was quicker than you’d think.”
“How was the traffic?”
“Not too bad today.”
His sense of humor is still intact, though. The geriatrician asked him, “When did you first notice you had memory issues?”
“I forget,” he said.
My mom, on the other hand, has struggled with recalling words—especially nouns and names—for several years, gradually getting worse. Sometimes she confuses who is doing the action in a memory—herself, my aunt, or me. Filling out forms and dealing with the horrible people who prey on the elderly with their scam phone calls and letters paralyzes her.
When my dad returned from the doctor, he talked her into going. He told her how nice the doctors were and how much he enjoyed taking the cognitive tests. I love how the geriatricians take their time with their patients (each appointment was well over two hours), really listen, and never point out when they get a question wrong. They try to include the whole family, but in the days of Covid, that was just me.
My mom did very well with many of the questions, but it was heartbreaking to watch her–the woman who has always excelled with words and art–try to draw a clock and name animals. Caring for my dad has taken its toll. I’ve known for years that something was wrong, but I hoped it would be what’s called Benign Senescent Forgetfulness, but it is not. Her case is much milder than my dad’s—Mild Cognitive Impairment—but it will keep gradually progressing.
There is no cure.
My brother and I are still reeling.
We have a long journey ahead. I’m so thankful it’s a journey God will walk with us.
If you are walking the same path as us, I want you to know about an excellent book I just read, recommended to me by a friend: Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, by Dr. John T. Dunlop. He writes about how we can honor God by treating the patient with dignity. It’s a must-read.
** If you know my parents, please, there is no need to call them and report that you read something that Taryn wrote about them in a blog. That would not be helpful. I do have their permission to tell people, and this is a story that affects me and, I hope, may help a reader. But I do not want to hurt their feelings.