The Beauty of Alzheimer’s

The Beauty of Alzheimer’s

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms

The Beauty of Alzheimer’s

To keep the heart unwrinkled, to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent—that is to triumph over old age.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

My mother is losing her eyesight, so when we get together, I read the clues to her, so she can still do crossword puzzles.

“It’s a long word,” I say. “It means ‘tardy one.’”

“Latecomer?” she responds. Darn, how does she do that? I wonder to myself. It’s hard enough to do crosswords when you’re looking at the squares and the adjoining letters, but somehow, she pulls the words right out of thin air.

“That’s right! I can’t believe you got that one. But this one’s a little harder. It’s kind of a long word. It means ‘abodes’ and starts with ‘D.’”

“Dwellings?” she answers. Amazing. She’s right again.

I scan the puzzle, trying to find one I would know the answer to. Nope. Not that one. Not that one either. There are some I know she won’t get; she never associates “wooden golf ball holder” to a “tee.” After all, she never played golf. But she knows that the high card in a deck is an “ace” and the dance that they do in Hawaii is the “hula.”

Big deal, you may be thinking. Well, to me it is a big deal. My mother has Alzheimer’s.

She doesn’t have the almost fully functional Stage 1 of Alzheimer’s that allows people to still live at home and sometimes hold down a job. She’s way up to Stage 6 (out of seven stages) and has been in that stage for almost five years now. Sometimes she doesn’t know my name. She doesn’t know where she is (in a nursing home) or why she’s there. But she’s still really good at word association, which allows us to still do crossword puzzles. I’m sure she hasn’t used any of these words in a sentence in a very long time. I mean, how often do you use words like “dwelling” or “latecomer” anyway? But she was always great with words, having spent her whole life doing crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble

Some people get really mean and nasty at this stage of Alzheimer’s. I hear them at the nursing home, arguing and yelling at the other residents and at the nurses. My mother went the other way. She got nice, and she got happy. I mean really nice and happy, which was kind of unusual for her.

For as long as I can remember, my mother wasn’t a happy person. She was negative and sarcastic and critical. I spent my whole life trying to please her and make her happy, and I never felt like I succeeded. I certainly never recall her telling me I was beautiful. Always somewhat depressed and shy and unassuming, now my mother starts singing and dancing whenever she hears music, regardless of whether she knows the words or the beat to the song.

She’s also very talkative and is always bragging about me to everyone she meets.

For instance, as soon as I arrive for a visit, she says, “Let’s go introduce you to some people.” We walk the halls and she introduces me to the same people she has been introducing me to for the last two years. “This is my daughter,” she says “Isn’t she beautiful?”

The nicer nurses play along “Oh yes, Ruth. She’s beautiful just like you.” But some of the nurses are tired of playing the game. “I know it’s your daughter,” they say. “I’ve met her a thousand times.” And some of the residents are way past the point of understanding what my mother is even saying. That doesn’t faze Mom a bit. Two minutes later, when we run into the same person, she’s at it again. “This is my daughter. Isn’t she beautiful?”

We make our way down the hall, carrying out our meet-and-greet until Mom gets tired and wants to go back to her room. And since it’s very hard to carry on a conversation with someone who can’t remember what happened five minutes ago, we usually start in on our crossword puzzles. She lies down in bed and closes her eyes, and I read her the clues. It’s remarkable the number of times she gets the answer right, even words that I haven’t heard her speak in years.

It makes the whole thing not so bad. I mean, Alzheimer’s is horrible, really horrible. But this is the first time in my mother’s life that she seems really happy. It’s certainly the first time I have ever seen her giddy enough to sing and dance. It’s the first time that we’ve ever spent time together doing nothing but having fun and being supportive of each other.

And it’s the first time in my life that I’ve learned that when she hears the word “daughter,” she always associates it with the word “beautiful.”

Betsy Franz

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