I wish I could say I never left Mom out in the cold in a social setting, but I know I did.
If there was anyone around other than the two of us, I talked to that person. I talked around Mom. Not intentionally, but, I guess, out of instinct. Aware that Mom struggled with words, I simply let the conversation take the path of least resistance.
That path usually avoids Alzheimer’s.
Thank goodness, I saw what I was doing pretty early on in Mom’s illness. On a typical caregiving day, Mom and Dad and I sat together at the kitchen table. As I talked to Dad, I noticed I was having to crane my neck to see around Mom’s head. She was craning her neck also, trying to look straight at Dad. Clearly, she wanted to be included.
Of course Dad and I had surely been challenged many times already that day, trying to get her to understand the daily necessities: getting dressed, eating a meal, taking medication. If you live with someone with Alzheimer’s, you know – the communication problems are not solved once a day; they’re addressed all day.
I’m sure, for example, we had answered Mom’s question “What are these things?” in a plethora of ways.
“Shoes, Mom. I’ll help you—“
“Your pills, Mom. And this is water—“
“Nail clippers! It’s beauty shop day!”
“Napkins, Mom. I know you like to have extras—“
And that was just one question. So perhaps Dad and I could be excused for talking around Mom sometimes.
But I soon saw that we did it most of the time, assuming Mom either couldn’t participate in the discussion or didn’t care. Yet, even if our assumptions were correct at times, at least trying to hold Mom’s attention was still the better choice. If we ignored her too long, she got restless, shuffling her feet or tapping her hands on the table. Sometimes she got up and left the room, almost always a very bad arrangement.
Once I saw the problem, I also found a pretty simple solution: maintain eye contact with Mom. Not constant, but at close intervals, whether I was talking to her or not.
At first Dad didn’t understand when I’d look at Mom instead of him as I answered his questions. “What’s wrong with your mother? Is there a problem?”
But once I explained what I was doing—a couple of times—Dad got it.
Or maybe it wasn’t so much my explanation that sold him as it was Mom’s reaction when he caught her eye.
“How doin’, Honey?” he’d suddenly boom across the table to Mom.
Sometimes he got the answer he expected: “Fine, Daddy.” Sometimes she just looked at him and smiled. Sometimes she looked in the direction of his voice, and sometimes she didn’t look at all.
Regardless of her response, Dad grew fond of fixing her in his gaze. Such was their love that I imagine he was thinking, “She’s still here. She’s mine. I can see her and touch her. She can see me and touch me. I can tell her I love her, and whether she says it or not, I know she loves me.” Those are the words I read in his cloudy, sky-blue eyes as he looked across a wide, wide gulf at the one and only love of his life.
Holding the attention of our loved ones isn’t always possible. But often the miracle is there to see and experience, if only we will claim it. Long after they forget to turn to us, we can communicate with them. With words, yes, but also with touch and music and loving looks. It takes determination to keep trying. But the miracles and victories stack up and strengthen us.
“I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do (Exodus 4:15 NIV).”
Father, all good things come from Your hands. Patience, courage, strength, solutions to challenges. Please teach us to keep our minds always aware of Your presence, Your help, Your miracles.