Alzheimer’s and My Grandmother
My grandmother, Maxine (Page) Snell, died this week.
This brings a long-time fight against Alzheimer’s to its only conclusion. She passed away in hospice care with my mother and cousin by her side. In true form I have some thoughts to put out there, few really connected, but worth thinking about anyway.
– My grandmother was kind of a rock star in her day. She was the first woman to enlist in the Women’s Air Force in the state of Maine. She raised three daughters and a grandchild, often while her husband was stationed elsewhere in the Air Force. She was a killer card player.
– I don’t have a whole lot of memories of my grandmother before the disease. I know she was a cleaner. She liked rearranging the furniture in the house a lot. She was a card player. She didn’t let us win, even when we were kids. One summer when I was about nine, I stayed with my grandparents. When she caught me stealing gum from my cousin she called my mom and made me confess to my crime. These are just small memories. The first real memory I have of her was when I was sixteen. I sat down in the living room while she was watching her soaps. She turned to me and said, “Who are you?” “I am Coleman…Your grandson.” “Are you here to rob me?” “No, just watching tv with you.” “Okay, but I have my eye on you…”
– I think Alzheimer’s tends to bring out who you really are underneath. Some people I have met are genuinely sweet. My friend Megan says that her grandmother was very vain. “I think I need a wig or a nice expensive hat.” My grandmother, I feel, was a very worried or paranoid person. Hence the fear of robbery. She would say later that her nurses or care-takers were beating her or trying to kill her.
– Growing up I heard stories of my grandmothers anger. Destroying rooms of the house when she was unhappy about something. This also contributed to her burning some bridges, including with her own family. She had a sister who still lived in Presque Isle, Maine who she hadn’t spoken to in sixty years. As the disease progressed through her memories, starting in the recent and moving to the distant, she began to forget things. Of course grandchildren were early going, then her own children, but one day, so was the reason why she hated her sister. It was almost funny. She walked out one day and said, “I need to call my sister.” “Your sister?” we said out of confusion and disbelief. “Yes, Paige. My sister. I want to call her.” For some time they talked on the phone almost every day. As her mind began to move back in time, so too it did away with a lot of hurt and anger that those memories were associated with. Before she died, she was able to put away a 60-year grudge with her sister.
– I have talked to several friends and co-workers recently about a major illness in the family. One thing that a co-worker said was that major illness shows you who your family really is and who really cares. That has been true.
– I think one of the oft over-looked people in these situations are the care-takers. For the past ten years it has been my mother and cousin with my grandmother. They have switched off, made decisions, sat in hospitals, talked with nurses, done the research and been the people on-call for issues with my grandmother for years now. It is exhausting work. I have watched my mom do it for some time now, showing more fortitude than I think I could have done in the same situation.
– These things being the case, it is difficult to have one feeling about all of this. Obviously there is the first sad fact: my grandmother died. But then there are the other circumstances: the sadness and constant fear that my grandmother had been reduced to, the burden off of my mother, the grudges buried by my grandmother’s disease. These things add up and cloud what the “right” feeling is.
– If you know anyone who is a care-taker. Give them a hug. If you can bear it, offer to help. Let them have a night out. Go buy some groceries for them. See how you can help. It’s a draining and hard experience, and not one that should be done alone.