One of the first things I learned about Alzheimer’s was that keeping Mom alert and engaged with those around her, even if only by means of eye contact, was a very good thing.
Mom seemed to drift further away from us when she was on her own. If she spent much time staring out the window or sitting alone in a room or dozing, she was often angry and loud, or she refused to speak and interact at all.
Talking to Mom was one of the best defenses against that kind of disconnect. It almost didn’t matter what subject I chose, as long as I kept eye contact. I believe that made her feel included, even when she wasn’t speaking.
Eventually, yes, Alzheimer’s took away her ability to jump into a conversation, but on her best days, she could still adapt. Her first and favorite strategy, I noticed, was to decide that something – and it might be anything – was new.
Sitting at the table in the late afternoon or evening, Mom would watch Dad and me discussing the news or his garden or what I planned for dinner. As she raised her eyebrows higher and higher, it appeared to me she was searching for a way to join the conversation.
Finally, “I’m talking to you,” she might say, turning to me.
No more words yet. I waited. In a moment or two she’d continue. “I see your blouse. Is it new?”
Probably it was an old sweatshirt I’d worn because I planned to do some cleaning. Maybe it was stretched out and holey. But a good day was a good day and on a good day, even a worn-out sweatshirt could be a pretty blouse. And not just that. Also a blessing. A miracle.
So I’d smile at her as I answered. “Thank you, Mama! I’ve had this for a long time.”
“Oh,” she would breathe and then, running short on words, she’d smile and smile and shuffle her feet back and forth beneath her chair until I rescued her by asking, “Do you like it?”
“Oh, yes, child.” Armed now with more words, Mom would look across the table to my father. “Do you like that blouse, Daddy?” Then, turning back to me, “Is it new?”
Since just about anything could be new to Mom on any given day, there were lots of “new” conversations.
When Dad put a rail on the back porch steps, Mom seldom failed to mention it as she went up or down. “Your father made this for me. It’s new.”
The rose garden Dad and I planted was perennially new, not from season to season or week to week, but from day to day, hour to hour, whenever Mom chanced to recognize it.
For a while, even my husband’s hair was new. It had turned gray when he was only about 40, and Mom always loved the silvery color. But one day his hair was brand new to her. She couldn’t tell him often enough how much she liked it.
Again and again she said, “I like your hair, Harold. Is that a new color?”
And Harold grinned and said, “Yes, ma’am.Your daughter gave it to me.” Mom didn’t get the joke, of course, but Harold laughed, so she laughed, and then we all laughed. A few minutes later, as she was rocking a bit and looking for a way into the conversation again, she seized on Harold’s hair again. We laughed every time.
Perhaps some tiny but well-used connection remained in her brain for a while after so many other connections had snapped or been smothered and died. Maybe that tiny connection told her that noticing something new and complimenting someone about it was a good thing to do and smiles resulted. Maybe she remembered, or maybe not.
Regardless, it was a miracle.
New miracles every day. We must watch for them. We can learn from them.
For example, I finally realized I should speak to Mom as she spoke to me. Not only using simple words and short sentences, but even choosing the subjects she chose. As tired as Dad and I became of hearing the same new questions and giving the same new answers again and again, I began to initiate the new conversations myself and let her respond.
“Oh, look, Mama! A surprise for us outside! Roses!”
“What a pretty tablecloth this is! Is it new?”
“Wow! Shamrocks on your shoes! I love them!”
Even if the pleasantness of the here and now had been discussed an hour ago and a day ago and many times before that, the miracle was that we could so often cheer Mom with it, even in the later years of her illness. We could remember what she had noticed and liked in the past and help her to notice it for the first time, again. We could trick the disease – make it work against itself. That was a sweet victory indeed.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.See, I am doing a new thing!Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland (Is. 43:18-19 NIV).”
Our Father, all creativity is Yours. As we fight against Alzheimer’s every day, we will be faithful to watch for Your direction. We thank You for inspiring us with miraculous ways to help our loved ones.