Alzheimer’s disease is a conundrum, a riddle, and like any puzzle, it can be tough to solve. Just when you think you have it figured out, it shows you how wrong you are. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease affect its victims differently. Ask my mom where she was born and she couldn’t tell you. Ask the Alzheimer’s victim sitting next to her and she will tell you where she grew up and the names of her siblings, yet this same person may believe that a doll is her baby, or she may talk to and reach out to objects we cannot see. And why is this person affected and not that one? We don’t know. That is a puzzle that is still unsolved.
Some say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I put this cliche to the test this summer with an Alzheimer’s patient, a person who can forget in an instant, my mom. My family and I did a lot of traveling toward the end of the summer. We drove from Indiana to Colorado, back to Indiana, and then down south to Virginia, my old stomping grounds, then on to North Carolina, and finally back to Indiana. This travel encompassed a month when I was not home and not able to visit my mom.
There was a time when I felt so guilty if I couldn’t visit her once a week that it made me physically sick. Now I wasn’t going to be able to see her for a month. How would this affect her? How would it affect me? Mom is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. Her brain functions are more affected by the disease than her body. She can outwalk the best of them, but ask what her name is and she can’t tell you. In fact, most questions are answered with pure nonsense. I was sure that I would return and she wouldn’t know me. I thought I would receive a blank stare or a confused look when I went to see her.
It was time for the big test. I was anxious. I prepared myself for the worst. Walking in, I mentioned my apprehensions to the nurses and they reassured me. They were sure that she would know me. I saw her sitting alone, and after a deep breath, I approached her during morning activity time.
Gently, I placed a hand on my mom, squatted down to look at her, smiled, and said, “Hi Mom, it’s me, Molly. I sure am glad to see you. I have missed you.” And her face lit up. There was that smile I knew. The joy in her face showed that she knew me and was happy to see me. I was so happy to see her and I had missed her so much, more than I can remember in a long time.
This experience reminds me that sometimes I need to heed my own advice. Recently, after talking to someone else who was struggling with being a caretaker, struggling with the continual loss of the mother she once knew, I gave her some advice. I said, “They will forget. It is part of the disease. They will forget things. Memories will be lost. They will forget their own names and the names of everyone they ever knew. But one thing they will never forget is what it feels like to be loved.”
Love is always the answer.