Alzheimer’s strikes us, victim and caregiver, at our most vulnerable points: our minds and our hearts. When a loved one has the disease, keeping family relationships as normal as possible becomes a huge goal. Being able to talk to each other, an important element in any relationship, gets more difficult with Alzheimer’s on the scene. But it’s not impossible.
Anti-depressant medication produced a bounty of positive changes in Mom’s life and, therefore, in mine. Though it did not prevent or even retard the progress of Alzheimer’s, the medication did much to relieve a condition Mom suffered from, I now believe, for most of her life. With the new medication Mom–even with Alzheimer’s–was a happier individual: more cheerful, less angry; more cooperative, less combative. She ate better, slept better, had more energy.
Without question the sweetest change was Mom’s willingness to enjoy time with Dad again. Her ability to join in a conversation was especially satisfying to him. Of course she couldn’t exchange views and express opinions as she once did, but after enduring long months of her angry silence, Dad was grateful Mom seemed to enjoy our talk as we sat together, whether she spoke or just listened.
She watched our discussions as though she were sitting in the stands at a tennis match. Almost always she was at least one volley behind, turning her head so slowly that she was often looking at my father as I was speaking, and vice versa. At times she fancied herself the referee, suddenly interrupting our talk with an opinion or observation clearly intended to decide the matter she had in mind. And sometimes, surprisingly, the matter in her mind was also the matter my father and I were discussing. Though such lucid conversations were few, they were invariably…interesting.
On a cold wet day in January, “I need to order the seeds for my tomatoes,” Dad said. “Usually I have them by now. I need potting soil, too. Or maybe I’ll mix my own again this year.” My father’s winters were spent planning for his springs.
“What varieties are you thinking about?” I asked him. “Last year the Celebrities did great. What else?” I knew this question would prompt a full scale review of the seed catalogs.
Sure enough, Dad reached over to a rainbow stack of booklets resting within his arm’s reach. Each cover displayed a cornucopia of vegetables growing profusely in a perfectly planted garden.
Magnifying glass in hand, Dad reviewed them page by page. “Why do they make it so hard to see which ones are good for our climate? It’s a good thing I know my tomatoes! Let’s see—will you write down these numbers for me?”
I went to the drawer for paper and pencil. Meanwhile, Mom was doing her best to see what Dad was studying. She stretched so far across the table her head almost touched his.
“Hang on a second, Dad,” I said and reached to the stack for another catalog. When I handed it to Mom, she sat back and grinned, but said nothing.
Like spring showers, Dad’s pronouncements of varieties and numbers were intermittent. Each one seemed to startle Mom for a second. Her head bounced up and down from the bright pages of her book to her observation of our tomato conversation, then wagged back and forth from my father to me as we discussed the relative merits of heat-tolerant varieties. Then—
“Peppers!” Mom’s voice was the equivalent of a sudden crack of thunder.
Dad’s head jerked up and the magnifying glass dropped to the table. “What?”
“Peppers!” she repeated. “Tomatoes and peppers. Green peppers.”
“Well, by all means!” Dad almost giggled with delight “Peppers! Of course! Thank you for reminding us!”
One day Alzheimer’s would steal Mom’s ability to interact with us in a positive, comfortable way. And eventually the disease would close her off from us entirely. But for now, the pepper remark and others like it, easy words that fit snugly into the talk of the day, were like bright yellow paint splashed against a gray landscape.
Still, with conversation as with other miraculous gifts, we had to be watching for opportunities. We had to make room for Mom in the conversation: invite her in with a simple question or a catalog or a picture, give her time to find her words, sometimes go to great lengths to understand her, and respond even we didn’t.
Because, of course, it was the interaction that mattered most. Mom with us, engaged to whatever degree was possible. Mom still part of her family. That was the miracle.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not…when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear (Isaiah 58: 6,7,8 NIV).”
Keep us aware, Lord, that Alzheimer’s cannot steal the spirit or alter the identity of those we love. It may hide them from us, but You see all. Show us, please, how to connect with our loved ones. Even when they cannot participate as they used to, show us, Father, how to maintain family relationships and embody family love.