43: Role Reversal

43: Role Reversal

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Role Reversal

First we are children to our parents, then parents to our children, then parents to our parents, then children to our children.

~Milton Greenblatt

“I don’t want to go.” Nan pursed her lips in a pout.

“You’ll have a good time.”

“Do I have to?” She looked at me with pleading eyes.

I sighed. “Just try it.”

It was a classic “first day of school” conversation—an annual ritual for parents and children all over the world.

“But I don’t know anybody there.” She turned her head to stare out the window at the passing scenery.

My heart broke as I heard the fear in her voice. What could I say to reassure her? “You’ll meet new friends. You’ll have fun, I promise.”

“No, I won’t.” Unconvinced, she folded her arms across her chest and sulked without a word for the rest of the ride.

A typical conversation on the first day of school. But this day was far from typical. Now I was the “parent,” and the “child” was my mother-in-law—77 years old, and the victim of Alzheimer’s disease. Nan lived with us, but the stress of never being able to leave her alone required some changes in our family routine.

We were on our way to Nan’s first day at the Alzheimer’s Day Care Center, a day care program for patients suffering from the debilitating effects of progressive memory loss. The program was designed to help stimulate the patient’s remaining cognitive skills while providing respite care to assist the family.

I found a parking space near the entrance and coaxed her out of the car. Nan cast an apprehensive look around. I prepared myself for additional protests, but she didn’t say anything else. Instead, she silently walked with me to the building. The program administrator greeted us at the door with a cheerful welcome and led us through a hallway toward the sound of lively voices.

A smiling “teacher” led Nan into a festive room and introduced her to the other participants. I started to follow them, but the administrator, whom I had met during the registration process a week earlier, stopped me. “Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”

Her reassurance was as ineffective as mine had been in the car with Nan.

“She didn’t want to come.” I directed my words to the administrator, but my eyes were trained on the closed door. “I think she might be afraid.”

“That’s to be expected on the first day. This involves a change for her, and change is especially difficult for patients with Alzheimer’s. But she’ll make friends, and we’ll engage her in activities that will interest her. She’ll have a good time, and in a few days we’ll be part of her new routine.”

I remained skeptical. “Maybe I should go in with her to make sure she’s okay, or at least stay for a while, just in case something goes wrong.”

“You can watch through the window for a few minutes if you want, but it would be better if she doesn’t see you. Why don’t you go enjoy your day? We’ll call you if we have any problems.” She gently ushered me away from the door, treating me like the overprotective parent of a kindergarten child.

Enjoying the day was easier said than done. Although we appreciated the opportunity to run a few errands and have a quiet lunch together, my husband and I spent most of the day second-guessing ourselves. Was she having a good time? Would she be angry with us? Was she cooperating with the staff? Did we do the right thing?

Despite our worries, the six hours flew by, and it was time to pick her up. Russ and I waited in the hall and watched in amazement as a smiling Nan stepped through the doorway.

“Bye!” she called out as she turned to wave to her new friends. “See you later.”

“Sounds like you had fun today,” I said.

“I did. I even met a woman who was in the army with me.”

“Really? What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. But we were in the army together. And there was someone else there who also said she was in the army with us, but I don’t remember the second lady—only the first one.”

Life had changed dramatically since “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember” became an integral part of Nan’s vocabulary. Memories are a strange thing. We can’t see them or touch them, yet who are we when they’re gone?

Nan couldn’t remember the near past. She couldn’t recall what she last ate or when she ate it. She didn’t remember when or whether she had taken her medications. She had forgotten how to dress herself and could no longer care for her own needs. She didn’t know the current day, month, or year.

But she loved to talk about what she could remember: home milk delivery, green stamps, Lawrence Welk, Jack Benny, her 1951 DeSoto, neighbors who never locked their doors, and gas that cost 28 cents per gallon. She was proud to have been a WAC in the U.S. Army, but she did not consider herself to be a trailblazer or a feminist. Later, as a single mom, Nan worked full-time in the healthcare field while raising her son and caring for her disabled father.

Nan’s memory of things long past was sharp and bright as she recalled details buried in the recesses of her mind. Listless conversations about current events transformed into vivid descriptions of experiences from long ago as if they had occurred only yesterday. Her animated stories opened a window into another time and place, and I enjoyed following her into a world very different from my own.

“Will I be coming here again?”

Her question brought me back to the present. “Do you want to?”

“Yes. My friends from the army will be there. I told them I would bring pictures with me.”

Our role reversal was complete… and the first day of school was a success.

~Ava Pennington

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