Sunday, September 4, 2016

Walk To End Alzheimer's - Why I'm Doing It

Back in the spring of 2006, I was living in New Jersey with a woman I had been with for a long time.  The relationship was falling apart for many reasons, not least of which was my despondency over not being able to find a teaching job in New Jersey and my general unhappiness at living in that miserable place.  It is no exaggeration when I say that the two and a half years I spent existing in New Jersey are among the worst of my life.

Out of desperation, I started applying for teaching positions in Delaware, where I'm from.  Within weeks, my hopes were raised as I was being called in for interviews at various schools in the southern Delaware area, and I was beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel regarding getting a job to start a career I had been working towards for several years.

Around this time, the health of my maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Vincent, started to deteriorate rapidly.  The previous winter, my mother had responded to a call from a neighbor that Mom-mom was outside in the snow walking around in her nightgown.  She had been outside for so long that she had minor frostbite on her feet, which were bare.  My grandmother spent a few days at my mother's home recuperating.

From there her periods of confusion and disorientation increased.  It soon became very clear that my grandmother was going to need fairly consistent, round-the-clock care.  And, my mother and her brothers knew that was going to mean a major battle with Mom-mom, who was fiercely independent, afraid of nursing homes, and lucid enough at times to know what was going on around her to protest what was happening, even if it was all being done with her best interests in mind.

She was clearly suffering from some form of dementia, most likely Alzheimer's as many of the classic symptoms of the disease were present: loss of short-term memory, sudden confusion and irritability, obsessively repetitive behavior, among others.  Specifically, Mom-mom's dementia also manifested itself in outbursts of paranoia and antagonistic behavior towards her children, particularly my mother, who had taken on the primary role in Mom-mom's care.  In her confusion and fear, Mom-mom was convinced my mother was out to get her in some way or put her in a nursing home or worse.

One small glimmer of light in this ordeal, I suppose, was the fact that Mom-mom remained "normal" with her grandchildren, so none of us felt the brunt of her rage that my mother and uncles experienced.  It was unsettling at times to watch her change like a light switch being turned on and off.  To see her go from spouting some hatefulness at my mother and then look at me and be all sweet and doting the way she had always, sometimes in a matter of seconds, was like watching one possessed.

As such I could talk to her and reason with her to some extent.  I could get her to calm down, to eat a meal, or drink some coffee.  I could also get her talking about something other than her current health situation, which I believe was good for her, although it meant a lot of repeated conversations that necessitated my playing along as though I had never heard them before.

I guess this coupled with the fact that I was traveling back and forth between New Jersey and Delaware for interviews prompted my mother to ask if I would stay with Mom-mom when I was in town to help look after her.  The days I would be there would give my mother some respite and Mom-mom some peace of mind as she seemed to enjoy my visits.  However, it all meant I got to witness my grandmother's deterioration first hand.

It was a pretty brief experience when all was said and done, only a little over a month between my starting to help care for my grandmother to her passing.  As is often the case, other health concerns come to the fore which caused Mom-mom to begin failing physically as well as mentally.  She spent the last few days of her life bedridden and largely unresponsive.

My last real interaction with my grandmother, one in which there was true recognition and responsiveness in her towards me, came about week before she died.  I awoke to hearing a lot of shuffling in her bedroom.  When I went in to check on her, I found she had kicked the sheets and blankets off the bed and had wet the mattress.  I got her attention and told her I would help her to the bathroom.  She mumbled something that I think was, "Bathroom," although I'm not sure.  

So, I helped her stand and walked her to the bathroom adjacent to her bedroom.  When I got her to the bathroom door, she put her left hand on my face and lightly patted it, a very tender, loving touch.  She had a slight smile on her own face and looked me directly in the eyes.  She then went into the bathroom.

Knowing this episode meant a severe decline for Mom-mom and that she would more than likely need help a grandson was ill-equipped to handle, I called my mother for help.  She arrived, and together we got Mom-mom cleaned up and settled back into bed.  

I have never mentioned Mom-mom touching my cheek to anyone, not even to my mother, until now.  I think it's because it was such an intensely private moment between the two of us that talking about it seemed wrong.  Even now, I doubt I could have very much to say about it outside of what I've written just now.  Some might believe she was saying a good-bye to me, that maybe she was beginning to accept or understand that she was failing and chose to reach out to me one last time.  That's a nice thought, and it could very well be true.  But, whether or not it is, I do know it was an act of love, one of great affection from her to me, and that's really all I need it to be.

It was this experience and, in particular, that last memory more than anything that prompted me to volunteer for the Alzheimer's Association Walk when the opportunity presented itself to me last year. I set a modest goal for myself and reached it.  This year, I went a little bigger.  Although I find it a little distasteful to end this blog entry with a plea for money, here it is nonetheless.  If you feel so inclined to support my walk, click on the link below.  It would mean a lot to me and the memory of my grandmother.

My Walk Page

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