23: Managing with Mom

23: Managing with Mom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Managing with Mom

Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.

~Victor Hugo

Every spring my Floridian in-laws returned to Michigan to visit their eight grown children, and my husband and I were first on the list. When they arrived in 1996, it didn’t take long to notice my mother-in-law’s memory was worsening.

My mother-in-law, who I called “Mom,” was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age sixty-five and prescribed a medication protocol to help manage her symptoms. The meds seemed to help, but over time, her memory lapses became more frequent and caused more concern. There were dinners burnt beyond recognition, repetitive stories and the constant struggle to remember names.

Then she came to stay with us one spring. It was difficult to find things for her to do around the house. I knew she loved working with plants and flowers, so pruning the dormant plants after our Michigan winter seemed a perfect fit.

I paraded Mom around the yard like she was some kind of master gardener with full control of her mental senses. “This can be cut back, but not this, this, and this.” What was I thinking?

As I watched her work from the kitchen window, it was evident I needed a better plan.

The Japanese maple tree, yes, the one that had taken more than twelve years to grow to a mere four feet, was stripped to stubble. But I refused to let the disease have the upper hand.

Once again, Mom and I walked the perimeter of the yard, this time with a can of spray paint.

“Okay, Mom, cut back any plant sprayed with red paint. If you don’t see red, don’t cut.”

“I can do that,” she replied.

And it worked!

This was just the beginning of the many challenges Alzheimer’s would bring to our family. There was the time Mom professionally cleaned my bathroom mirrors and glass shower doors with deodorizing spray. I watched as she worked intently to remove every self-induced streak. Occasionally she would tear a sheet from the roll of paper towel tucked under her arm. It was a brief “life as usual” moment for Mom; she felt useful and I didn’t have the heart to stop her.

When a family member has Alzheimer’s, you learn to laugh when you want to cry. Laughter becomes the healing balm for the isolation and loneliness we feel caused by our inability to communicate with someone we love. That 1996 visit with my mom-in-law was a precious gift.

I remember a long drive home from a family gathering with Mom seated next to my husband, Chris. The conversation went like this:

“Christopher, it is so nice to see you again.” (10-minute pause)

“Christopher, it is so nice to see you again.” (10-minute pause)

“Christopher, it is so nice to see you again.” (5-minute pause)

That marathon conversation lasted two hours. It’s now a cherished memory that makes us laugh every time we mention it.

I was surprised that the more time I spent with Mom, the more I longed to delve into the corrupted thought process of Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke with home care nurses at the hospital where I worked. Many cared for those with Alzheimer’s on a daily basis and their shared insight of the stages of the disease process was helpful. The Alzheimer’s Association website (www.alz.org) and message boards were another great source of information.

For instance, I couldn’t help but wonder what compelled someone to hide used paper placemats beneath the kitchen sink. When we would visit, Mom proudly displayed the food-stained placemats.

“Look, Christopher, I have been saving these for you. How many would you like?”

On our way out the door, they were discarded with the knowledge many more were sure to follow. If Mom wasn’t gathering paper placemats from the dining tables at the extended care facility, she was stealing toilet paper from their public restroom. One Christmas, the family was invited to attend a sing-a-long in the community room at Mom’s care facility. As my husband walked his mother back to her room he noted she was walking slower than usual.

“What’s wrong, Mom? Are you tired?”

“Oh no, I’m fine.”

As they rounded the corridor’s corner, the two rolls of toilet paper hidden beneath Mom’s sweater fell to the floor.

“What’s going on, Mom? Are you lacking in toilet paper?”

“Well, I didn’t want to accuse anyone,” she replied, “but someone is stealing my toilet paper.”

“Do you want me to report this to the front office?”

“Oh no,” Mom responded, “I can get all the toilet paper I need from the public restroom next to the cafeteria.”

We never knew what to expect when spending time with her and, looking back, it was laughter that helped us cope. We have no idea why she placed empty toilet paper rolls under her mattress, or why holding an infant brought clarity to Mom’s confused mind. Sadly, the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease is locked in the mind of those who suffer its debilitating effects.

It was difficult to watch Mom’s sharp mind spiral downward. She had taught nursing at a well-known university and had given birth to eight healthy children, all who had graduate degrees and successful careers. Watching this once vibrant woman live in a world of void was heartbreaking.

My mother-in-law’s life came to a quiet end as she watched her caregiver decorate the Christmas tree. I can only guess her thoughts in those last minutes before death.

Ultimately, I would like to believe God renewed her mind with flashbacks of all the amazing ways she touched the lives of her family and friends. Even as she failed, she continued to add value and be an important part of our family.

~Denise Marks

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