It’s a journey that seemed to begin one day while I was sitting at a stop light. I had just passed my mother-in-law and she was coming up beside me in the next lane. I was looking forward to her stopping at the light right next to me so I could blow my horn and wave, but instead she zoomed right through the red light. It was a miracle that no one else was in the intersection. Something we suspected now became quite clear.
She was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s Disease. She was no longer allowed to drive and a few years later she and my father-in-law moved into a little apartment above our garage.
Other than physically moving, nothing much has changed for her on the outside; she’s still very happy and healthy. She comes to visit us (“the people in the downstairs apartment”) from time to time. She always apologizes for interrupting and sometimes interrupts quite often throughout the day. It’s not uncommon for her to walk out the door and come right back in. She apologizes, and we always tell her she’s not interrupting us even though she might be. Grandma, that’s what we call her, will come downstairs looking for her husband, Robert, if he’s gone more than five minutes even if he just went into another room. She has managed to visit our neighbor after hearing sounds indicating that they might be having a party (music, laughter, screaming and yelling, etc…). She can’t keep away from something that sounds or looks like fun. Consequently, our neighbors know her, and we now know that they are sweet, patient, and compassionate neighbors from our two visits. I could go on and on about the little things she does, but I think I can speak for the family when I say that we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as we struggle living with Alzheimer’s disease. I in particular have learned a lot.
For instance, one of my personal struggles is that I feel like I am not recognized for all I do at home or at work. I work hard without complaining or drawing attention but occasionally I just need someone to say “good job!”. Grandma showed me that appreciation is not all I made it out to be.
I started working on three gardens around our pool that had overgrown a little with grass and weeds, as well as some plants we actually intentionally planted. My big plan one weekend was to weed, put down some mesh, mulch and place the stone around all three gardens. I started late Friday afternoon and worked through late Sunday.
Being the Obi-Wan Kenobi of knowing when stuff’s going on outside, Grandma came out on her balcony that overlooks the pool as soon as I started and said “Hey Billy! You sure are working hard.” Finally, some recognition, right? It takes a lady with Alzheimer’s to see that I’m the unspoken hero this family. Fifteen minutes later she came out and said, “Thank you for doing all that work for us.” I’ve finally reached the super hero status I deserve! Then about every fifteen minutes for three days as she carefully observed, I got to hear how great I was. By Sunday I was full up on appreciation; I’d seriously had enough. During some of her thanking episodes, I’m not even sure she realized I lived here and it’s my pool. I seriously thought she was sure that Robert had hired me to do the work. Sometimes I was so hot and miserable when she came out that I went inside because I couldn’t take it anymore. Other times when she started to talk I felt like screaming, “I know, I know, I’m doing a good job!!” J. Vernon McGee said, “Flattery is like perfume. It’s meant to be enjoyed not drank up.” Her thankfulness had been poured on me to the point I was drunk with irritability. So, Grandma taught me that there’s such a thing as too much appreciation and that going unnoticed isn’t all that bad.
And Grandma loves ketchup. When I say loves ketchup, I mean on ice cream loves ketchup. I’m not lying. She puts ketchup on everything including ice cream. You could make a list of things you doubt she puts ketchup on, and I’d have to tell you, yes she does. Grandma and Granddaddy eat with us occasionally, so it wasn’t immediately noticeable. She put it on her potatoes and then, oops, on the salad. Gross. Then she put it on her spinach one time. I just thought that was a weird taste she had for ketch-upped spinach. Gross. Robert joked that she put it on everything but I thought he was exaggerating. He told me she puts it on her potato chips and even ice cream. (Ew) Gross. Over time, as she got comfortable at our house she came out of the closet and just started asking for ketchup at every meal and putting it on whatever she felt like.
At first I thought she was confused and didn’t realize that it didn’t go on some things and I’d try to correct her, “Don’t put it on your spinach!” Doesn’t she know that’s gross? Eventually it became apparent that she liked it on anything and everything. Why should I correct her and interfere with her joy? She’s not hurting me or anyone else. We just started sitting it on the table no matter what we were having.
But she also has this obsession with feeding the dogs. We have a side door that’s not used so we put the dog food and water there. We have three dogs who live outside, and that’s where they eat. Grandma thinks the dogs follow her around because they are hungry so she gets hands full of dog food and walks around dropping it on the ground for them to eat which is why they follow her. We’re not sure which came first, dropping dog food or the dogs following her. We started catching her and politely telling her to stop. She would acknowledge she shouldn’t do it but then she’d go right back to the food when she thought we weren’t looking. My wife put yellow warning tape on the dog food container that says, “Grandma, DO NOT TOUCH THE DOG FOOD” but she still gets dog food. We were out of town once, and Granddaddy told us that while he was feeding the dogs Grandma told him, “Can’t you read? It says stay out of the dog food.” Sometimes I’ll get in my car and drive off, and as I look in the rear view mirror, I see Grandma peaking around the corner then heading to the food. Granddaddy reported to us that he was finding dog food in her pockets and purses. This was now epidemic and needed to be stopped. We were all committed to keeping her out of the dog food. Fortunately, I came to the realization that Grandma enjoyed feeding the dogs, and they were going to eat it regardless of where it was. I started telling everyone to leave her alone and now we have peace with her feeding the dogs. Again, why should I correct her and interfere with her joy? She’s not hurting me or anyone else.
This is all complicated by her tricky personality. She’s just over 70 years old, looks and sounds healthy but her mind just isn’t all there. If you came to our house for a visit you would have to observe her closely to see the things we see that are associated with her Alzheimer’s. On the outside, she appears to have it all together so it’s hard to realize that she should know better than to pour ketchup on every meal or fill her pockets with dog food.
We love Grandma and treat her with nothing but kindness, but it is hard work. I can’t control her, so I’ve learned more about controlling myself. I can’t control what she does other than making sure she doesn’t hurt herself. I’ve learned that the things she does don’t have to make sense. Sometimes she can’t complete an understandable sentence, but I’ve learned to listen and smile. I’ve learned that her logic doesn’t fit my logic, but it doesn’t have to.
Our entire family is learning lessons that can’t be taught anywhere else. We are blessed to have Grandma and Granddaddy living with us.