In varying degrees my parents are completing their life journey in the dark tunnel of Alzheimer’s Disease. On every level I know they are not the same individuals they used to be, so I stopped grieving for the mother and father who raised me and I accepted their withdrawal into their shadowed selves. I relinquished my hold on the past and instead began holding and hugging them more fiercely than before. As long as my parents still recognize me, as long as their faces continue to light up with pleasure upon my visits, I will celebrate the time I still have with them. While it can be difficult to push the memories aside and form palatable connections with the existing circumstances, it is necessary to do so if I am going to contribute to the quality of life my parents currently possess. This I know and believe.
My mother realizes her mind is fuzzy—for perhaps five minutes. My father is not aware of his dimmed faculties at all. While books and articles have been helpful during my own murky trek as a caregiver, nothing has fully prepared me for the frustration and helplessness that pop up at every turn.
I am more fortunate than many, I realize; my parents are generally sweet-tempered rather than mean-spirited. I am ever mindful of this blessing, particularly on those occasions when these dear souls become petulant and contrary as a result of their own frustration. My father, for example, refuses to use his cane even though he walks unsteadily. This issue has become his hill. The few instances he has swung his cane at me in protestation of my request that he keep his cane close by, I knew he was recoiling out of pride, not out of anger toward me. I know the difference now. When my mother reacts shrilly at my reminder that Dad will be undergoing a second surgery but does recall that he had the first surgery a month earlier, I know what her next words will be: “How am I supposed to know this? Nobody ever tells me anything.” I am the “nobody,” of course, and while once I might have responded, “Mom, we just discussed this yesterday,” now I don’t. One look at the confusion and fear in her eyes is enough to stop me, and I simply enfold her in my arms. I am terrified and sad for her during such times. For five minutes she will quietly bemoan her failing memory, but blessedly even that is forgotten a few minutes later.
For caregivers of Alzheimer prisoners, the ordeal is not always a matter of coping with challenges one day at a time; sometimes it is one hour at a time—or less. I have discovered how to appreciate the good visits, capitalizing on prized anecdotes about the grandchildren or the entertaining antics of my parents’ cat. As the often teary meltdowns increase in frequency, I have learned to treasure the power and grace of humor and to savor the warmth of my parents’ tight hugs, still the best always. If I cannot, as George M. Cohan advises, “always leave them laughing,” I will settle for leaving them with the realization, no matter how brief, of how much they are still loved.
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