We simply never know.
Caregivers never know how a day will turn out. How an event will end. What effect any one action may have on a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
What we do know is that whatever affects our loved ones and their lives also affects us and our lives. We try to expect the best and avoid the worst. We think we know the difference.
Sometimes, though, we’re surprised.
Even before Mom had Alzheimer’s, she wasn’t adept at cutting hair. As a child, I always got down from her hair-cutting stool with bangs that looked like elbow macaroni. Mom would wet them with a comb dipped in water and then cut them again and again, trying to get the length even from one side to the other. After her scissors did their work, my naturally curly hair did its own thing: as the bangs dried, they curled up and gathered like macaroni artwork at the tip-top of my forehead. “They’ll grow,” she always told me. “They’ll grow out.”
But after Alzheimer’s took over Mom’s life, after she virtually shaved her own hair with a pair of desk shears, Dad and I could only tell her the same thing: “We can’t do anything to fix it. Your hair will have to grow.”
We did buy her two hats. She liked them for a couple of days, then refused to wear them. Soon they disappeared. Completely. Many things Mom claimed to dislike disappear completely.
But within a couple of weeks, we saw the miracle. We witnessed the wonder that redeemed the Hair Massacre:
Mom’s self-inflicted haircut accomplished what all our meeting with and explaining to and questioning of doctors could not.
The family doctor assigned to my parents at the senior healthcare center had decided—out of a wealth of experience, I’m sure, but experience that did not include living with this patient and her pain and her moods 24 hours a day—that the symptoms he saw in his office were not those of a depressed or anxious woman. He decided Mom had Alzheimer’s. And the symptoms he had not yet seen? The ones Dad and I brought to him verbally and also written in careful detail? He simply refused to consider them.
Until he saw the haircut. About two weeks after the Hair Massacre, Mom’s regular doctor’s appointment found us once again persuading and prodding her into his office. Once again her angry and hostile behavior evaporated as we entered the medical building. Once again Dad and I came armed with written questions and descriptions of Mom’s anxiety, paranoia, and anger. Once again we were prepared to plead for the doctor’s help.
We didn’t have to say a word. When the doctor walked in and saw Mom’s hair, his face registered instant alarm.
He looked at my father and asked, “Did she do this?”
Dad just nodded.
Mom sat smiling while the doctor asked Dad questions about her behavior. Dad answered patiently, and when the questions slowed, handed the doctor the sheets of paper we’d brought. Instead of stuffing them into the back of her file as he’d done twice previously, the doctor read them, asking for clarification or more details, taking notes. Then he told us he was prescribing a strong antidepressant. He emphasized it would do nothing to improve her memory or lessen her confusion, but it should relieve her anxiety and brighten her mood somewhat. He went on to explain that a geriatric psychiatrist came to this office once a month; he would set up a time for him to see my mother.
The turn-around that took place in the examining room was a wonder to experience. After a year of trying to get the doctor’s attention—to make him begin to treat my mother, not just the symptoms he witnessed—it was neither me nor my father who made him see the light. It was Mom and her haircut. Mom and what the doctor called her “self-destructive tendencies.”
I call it a miracle. Before she ever took one of the little pills that would prove so critically important in improving the quality of her life and ours, I knew it was a miracle that had gotten us to this point. Only a miracle could take the pain and madness of that afternoon in front of the bathroom mirror and turn it to some healing use.
Using heretofore undiscovered skills, I cut Mom’s hair from that day on, gently and playfully ambushing her with a burgundy plastic cape and tiny silver hair shears on mellow afternoons as she sat at the table chuckling at my father’s corny jokes. Those afternoons became more plentiful after she began taking the antidepressants.
And the doctor? The change in him was dramatic, too. He realized, I guess, that his short visits with Mom in his office weren’t giving him an accurate picture of her health. So, at last, he accepted input from all three of us. Finally he was on our team.
Remind me, Father, that Your love and Your power are tenderly working for Mom. In every circumstance, joyful or painful, let me see You here, with us, protecting, redeeming, again and again.
The Lord is righteous in all His ways and faithful in all he does. The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. (Ps.145:17-18 NIV)