Things have been a little weird around here. My mom thinks she is living in San Diego (in her apartment) in the senior living center where she lived, prior to moving in with us. She moved in here last August; all the way to Alaska from Southern California. The other night, I prepared a lovely meal of teriyaki turkey breast, some scalloped potatoes, and steamed spinach. While I was cooking, mom toddled off somewhere to the back of the house. I stopped preparing dinner to find out where she had gotten off to, and what she was up to. (It truly is the same as having toddlers…if they are quiet and not in the same room, you need to run and find them!!) As I approached her in her room, she kept saying we had to get downstairs to the restaurant before all the tables were taken. She was carrying her wallet. I asked her what it was for. She informed me she was paying for our dinner downstairs. I asked her why we needed to go to a restaurant, and did she not like my cooking? Her response was that she supposed she could eat mine, but that we needed a restaurant downstairs. We had been making our way back out to the living room, but then she huffed off to her “apartment” with her wallet, and with two pairs of shoes in her hands, angry she was not going “downstairs to the restaurant” to have dinner.
The thing about Alzheimer’s is that you just never know how those pistons are going to fire. It is the best analogy I have heard for the degenerate aspect of Alzheimer’s. It creeps along the nervous system, destroying as it goes. And if we think of our brains like engines, the parts that are destroyed are what keep the ending running – those pistons. Flames are struck and the piston is raised up, the engine is able to turn the driveshaft, and the vehicle moves down the road. (Public Service Reminder: this is from a woman who can barely find which side of the car the gas tank is on!). With Alzheimer’s those sparks are sometimes not strong, they are non-existent, or they are hit and miss. There is no normal pattern. The engine sputters, the car stalls, and if the corrosion continues, the car stops running. Our brains are like badly corroded engines…the muck and grime are stuck to our nerves and the signals cannot get through to the parts of the brain that help us function. Eventually signals stop coming through altogether, and our bodies can no longer function. And that is why a doctor can say someone dies from Alzheimer’s. Other dementing illnesses may not cause death, but they are disruptive, to be sure. A dementia patient may forget a word, or forget to be somewhere at a certain time. An Alzheimer’s patient can look at a fork and not know what it is, or look at a family member and not know them. Quite often they cannot describe what they are thinking and their processes become muddled. You may see the stereotypical representation of older people, sitting in their wheelchairs in a rest home hallway (aka – skilled nursing facility) drooling and muttering to themselves. More than likely, that is an Alzheimer’s patient. And as this hideous disease moves along the nervous system, life becomes complicated and will eventually end, when the disease has run its course.
Of all the dementing illnesses (and there are more than are shown above; these are the most common) Alzheimer’s is the most common. It is becoming an epidemic in our elderly. And we, as a culture, have got to start paying more attention. We have to find a cure.
Mom had an episode wherein she was completely separated from the reality around her. It was confusing her, because in her mind’s eye, she was in San Diego on the 3rd floor in her 5-story, very nice, retirement community. She could not see Alaska in all its beauty, as she looked out our window. She was seeing palm trees being swayed by ocean breezes and the lovely fountain in the roundabout entry of their parking lot, which she see from her living room. She kept trying to explain how we had to “go down for dinner.” I gently encouraged her to lay her things down on her bed and to come to dinner with me. She came out of her bedroom (thinking it was her apartment) grumbling about how we were not going to get a good table and wanting to pay for our dinner. I eased her into the couch and brought her the dinner I made for her. She ate and thanked me, saying it was tasty. She covered her plate to hide the fact that she had not eaten all of her food (and I give her smaller portions these days). She did not make sense, as she chatted to my husband and myself. She was very quiet most of the evening. It was a long, hard day.
A few days have passed. A weekend, in fact. My hubby had 4 days in a row at home, all day, puttering in our yard (okay, he worked hard) and a day golfing. Our son, who has been gone over the past month fighting fires in the “lower 48,” surprised us by coming home. And he promptly left again today for his normal fire house shift. Mom is so confused. A houseful, and now it is just the two of us. She had an appointment with the foot clinic today and we barely made it. (Another blog post for another time). So while we were out and about (so very rare for mom these days) I took her for a haircut. She is not happy but I am! Short is much easier for me to deal with because she rarely does her hair. She thinks she does, but she does not. And today, well, today we had double eyebrows on both eyes. She is just so confused. She has been walking around the house, looking for her apartment key. She has no idea how she will get into her apartment. I have explained, at least 3 times this afternoon, that she lives with me. During the most recent explanation she replied, “Well I might, but my apartment will be locked.” As she wandered the house, I made us grilled cheese sandwiches, which are her favorite. She came to the kitchen so lost; looking around. I explained I was making her favorite sandwich and she said, “Yes; I like toast. Some people don’t, but I always have liked toast.” I explained I was grilling her a cheese sandwich. She said she guessed she could have that. LOL. And then I dropped everything and walked up to her and just hugged her. I told her I knew she was confused and lost and I was trying to help. She admitted she did not know where she was or what she was doing here. I promised her I would be here to help her get through this and her reply was that it was the only thing she could count on – me. Sigh. No pressure. LOL.
As we peer down into the rabbit hole known as Alzheimer’s, I take deep breaths. I try and center myself. Mom sees her doctor next week and she has changed so much. She has been going down, deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s and it is not slowing down. If anything, it is picking up the pace. All I can share is that each moment is so very different. All these precious moments require us to be fully in that moment, because each one is so vastly different from the last one. Those pistons change their firing pattern every single second of every day. My mom is so fragile and vulnerable. She makes me madder than any other person on earth, because she knows my soft spots and my weaknesses. She knows which buttons to push without even thinking about it. And me, I tend to dive back into our old patterns. But now that she is tanking so quickly, she is softening. She is scared. And she is fragile. And that is where I come in. I am here to hold her as she falls further down that rabbit hole. Yeah; it is scary.