How does Alzheimer’s affect the youngest among us?

My name is Emily, and I am the Development Associate and resident blogger at AGE. And I am a grandchild of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Or rather, I am a grandchild of a woman with dementia, likely caused by Alzheimer’s. It started when I was just 10 years old, and it has been over 15 years since my grandma started disappearing. It is no easier now than it was as a child.

First, she stopped cooking. It was how she showed her love and doted on us. I knew something was really wrong when my Grandpa, who had never really cooked, took over what had once been Grandma’s domain.

Then the more bizarre behaviors began- things that really mortified the kid I was at the time. Grandma would take out her dentures at the most inappropriate places to clean them, or she’d ask for ketchup at a Mexican restaurant because she couldn’t differentiate that from salsa, or she started to lose her ability to know when she should whisper in church or the movie theater instead of loudly observe things that you don’t say aloud in public.

And, of course, in crept the tell-tale sign of asking the same exact questions over and over and over again.

Grandma had an ‘angry’ period where she was occasionally physically and verbally violent, mostly towards my Grandpa. Then after a while, she became more and more juvenile- in the most joyful way. She became so affectionate, always reaching for a hand to hold.  And then, she became too affectionate, even with strangers. She has been known to sneak a kiss when a friend would try to just give her a hug, and since she’s in a wheelchair it’s quite easy for her hands to wrap around and give someone a little squeeze on the behind- it’s even happened to our pastor.

Mood swings and personality changes are common for those with dementia, but that was difficult to understand as child and even as a teenager. I sometimes felt annoyed at her behavior, angry at her outbursts, indifferent, confused, sometimes amused, and so very often deeply sad. Most of all, I felt beyond guilty for feeling anything but pure love and gratefulness for this woman.

As for the rest of the family, there have been stages of grief, denial, and bargaining for my parents and my aunt as they transitioned from being this woman’s children to being her caregivers. It has been an incredible journey of highs and lows, questions and transformations that have all fundamentally altered what my family looks like. Dementia changed my Grandmother, but it also changed us.

The irony is that she’s almost as fit physically now as she was five years ago. There’s no indication that she’s giving up yet, even if her mind has. The grandma I once knew has been almost completely devastated by whatever has taken residence in her brain. It has been a long progression. She hasn’t been able to walk for a few years now. She doesn’t really recognize any of us anymore. I don’t think I’ve heard a purposeful sentence from her in over a year. And these things can be hard for a child to witness and accept. “She looks fine, why won’t she talk to me? Why doesn’t she know you, Mom? How can she forget that she’s married?

I know my experience is not special or unique:  1 in 8 older Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. And there are over 15 million Americans providing unpaid care for a person with Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia (Alzheimer’s Association). That is a massive amount of individuals, spouses, children, and grandchildren being dragged through the mud of this disease. You are not alone. We can learn from our shared experiences. It’s important to tell your story. And it’s important  to include the children of your family in discussions about what’s going on with your loved one with dementia.

For those of you who have a child facing the immediate reality of dementia in either a parent or grandparent, there are some lots of resources out there to help you talk about dementia or Alzheimer’s. This disease is a bit different from others in that Grandma, or your uncle, or your Mom may look perfectly healthy on the outside. Kids need some help understanding the mechanics of this disease and that you can’t always see that something is wrong when someone is sick in this way. The two resources listed below have great information ranging from how to make the conversation developmentally appropriate to concrete tips and talking points:

Ultimately, I do not want to detract from unbelievably heartbreaking experience of those, like my Grandma, who are dealing with dementia themselves. Because it isn’t really about the pain of the rest of the family at all, it’s about allowing your loved one to experience the rest of their life with as much dignity and vitality as possible. Helping the children in your life understand what Alzheimer’s is doing to their loved one will make it easier for them to continue to see the person instead of the disease.

Reflecting back on the beginning years, Grandma never once talked about being aware of her diagnosis or what it was like for her. She sort of just slipped from the beginning stage where she was just ‘mildly’ forgetful to a place where she could no longer contemplate a question about her state of mind if she tried. I wish I knew what it was like for her. This journey has shown me that there many things I don’t know, and that there’s no ‘right’ way to be a supporter for someone with dementia. What I do know, Grandma, is that I will continue to love you wherever else this road takes us.

For those in the greater Austin area, AGE of Central Texas has a number of resources for caregivers and for those experiencing dementia. Click here to visit our website for more information.

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