She was disappearing right before our eyes

When I was a teenager, I toured a nursing home facility as part of an activity with my church youth group. I don’t remember much about the visit except that it smelled like urine and was very quiet. We visited the entire campus except for one area that was off-limits. The Alzheimer Unit. They told us that unit was locked from the inside because the patients who lived there would wander off if they were allowed to freely walk around the way the other patients could.  The director told us that many of the Alzheimer patients were violent and experienced fits of rage.  One of their patients had been a well-mannered, respected woman in the community. That is, until she developed this horrible disease. Since being trapped within herself, she only spewed vile curse words at people. Her family didn’t even know how she knew some of those words! They had never, ever heard her utter an unkind word.

My only experience with Alzheimer’s disease was this brief visit to the nursing home until my own grandmother was diagnosed. It crept up slowly at first. Her newlywed husband of only a few years realized that she showed signs of chronic forgetfulness and appeared lost in familiar places. It only took a couple of years before she didn’t recognize him much of the time and my mother, her daughter, was someone she knew by face, but not by name. It felt as though she was disappearing right before our eyes.

Taken before Grandma was diagnosed

Grandma 2009

We occasionally laughed at some of Grandma’s misunderstandings. The things she said and did were sometimes funny, but we knew that we were covering up the sadness we actually felt.  

To give Grandpa a break, she sometimes stayed for a few days at my mom’s house. I went to visit her during these stays and occasionally had the chance to babysit my grandma. Ironic. I recall one evening, while I was sitting with her; she was very worried and agitated that my mom and step dad had not returned to take her home to Wyoming. (She hadn’t lived in Wyoming for over 50 years….but that was the only place she knew to be home.) I tried to assure her that everything was okay and she was going to stay at my mom’s house for a few days. She gave me a pleasant, although condescending, smile, patted my hand and said, “Dear, you are such a good friend. I bet they love having you live so close to come and be with me. But they will be taking me home tonight.” There was no sense arguing with her. In five minutes, we would start the entire conversation again anyway.

With the house safely locked up, Grandma and Grandpa used their backyard as somewhat of a retreat.  They had several bird feeders and enjoyed watching the birds each day.  The backyard was fully fenced and the gate kept locked so it was a safety zone and allowed them both some fresh air and exercise. One particular day, Grandpa was busy raking some leaves when he realized that Grandma wasn’t outside any more. Thinking she had gone inside the house, he continued his yard work. After about 10 minutes, he noticed that she hadn’t returned to the yard so he thought he’d better go check on her. He searched the house several times, including looking in closets and even under the bed. She had to be there somewhere! Finally, flustered and worried, he got in his car and started driving around the neighborhood. He couldn’t believe she had gotten out, but he had thoroughly searched the home and yard, so his only option was to start looking elsewhere. After he had made his way through every block in their neighborhood, he finally came to an intersection where  a community college campus was visible across a busy, four-lane street. That’s where he spotted her, wandering aimlessly through the giant parking lot of the college. When he reached her and helped her safely into the car, he asked her what she was doing all the way over there. She replied, “I was going to pick up the kids from school!” She often thought she was a young mother, rather than a senior citizen.  She was simply doing her motherly duty and picking up the children.  After returning home, he asked Grandma how she had gotten out. She cheerfully replied, with the excitement of a 6-year-old, “There’s a big hole in the fence under the shrubs. Come on! I’ll show you!” Sure enough, if you lifted up the branches of one of the shrubs, there was a huge gap, big enough for her to crawl on her hands and knees and escape.

When Grandma’s body was tired and worn out in July of 2012, she said goodbye and peacefully slipped away. It was one of those deaths that come with a sad feeling of relief. A few months before she passed away, I watched a documentary on Amazon Instant Video, titled “You’re looking at me like I live here and I don’t”. It is filmed inside an Alzheimer’s Unit and gives a close up look at the day-to-day life and thoughts of these special patients. If you know anybody who has Alzheimer’s disease, I recommend watching this program to better understand their needs and the disease in general.