101. No Longer a Thief

101. No Longer a Thief

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

No Longer a Thief

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.

~Alex Haley

My grandma was now a tiny version of herself, but even on days when she was trapped deep within the fog of dementia, the best parts of Grandma were still there. She may not have known our names, and she mistook her son for her precious husband whom she mourned terribly, but she was a sweet, happy lady always bringing smiles to the staff and fellow residents where she lived.

We were all experiencing a great loss — she was right in front of us, yet, she wasn’t. She was lost in the recesses of her mind, her memories jumbled, faces and names confused. I wanted desperately for my preschool daughter to know my grandma. The tricky part was that my daughter experiences autism. How would I bridge the gap between loved one and stranger, seventy-something and five-year-old, a person who experiences dementia and a person who experiences autism?

I knew that when we introduced the two, my daughter would need to stay busy. I never take her anywhere without a well-packed activity bag. I also thought that my grandma might enjoy participating in the fun, so I packed for two.

The bag had treasured favorites like beads, pipe cleaners, crayons, paints, Play-Doh and other activities. From the moment my beloved grandma set eyes on my daughter she was enchanted by her every move. I stood back and watched my grandma beam. She wasn’t quite sure who this little girl was, but she loved her all the same.

We found a table and set up our activities. Grandma eagerly participated, and though she was slower and her response times delayed, she gave every activity a try. But most of all she loved just being with her great-granddaughter and absorbing her youth and innocence.

I watched the two people I loved dearly and took mental snapshots of these precious moments. I watched as Grandma’s worn hands brushed my daughter’s hands, who was just beginning her life, and I watched as Grandma held on as long as my daughter would allow.

The irony of their social dance did not escape my notice. It didn’t matter that my daughter couldn’t make eye contact with Grandma, and it wasn’t important to my daughter that my Grandma couldn’t remember her name. For this moment in time, they were secret friends in a pretend tree house giggling and creating and just enjoying each other’s presence. It didn’t matter that they were scores of years apart in age, or that their social skills were terribly lacking; they had found common ground in shared activities and being friends. The absence of details and specifics that had built walls between so many others and had caused them to fall away, were the very glue that made this new, beautiful friendship work.

The absence of judgment and expectation was freeing for these two friends. They could make up stories, or speak in echolalia and neither one of them was offended, impatient, or annoyed. It became part of the dialogue.

The staff marveled, and everyone who watched this exchange, from nurses to other family to visitors, were charmed and touched to witness this precious new friendship bloom. While the friendship was nurtured and grew deeper it became increasingly more difficult with each visit to continue with the same activities. The hugs lasted longer, photos were taken, and the two friends were oblivious to what the rest of us knew was coming.

When Grandma passed away on a cold January day, I lost a beloved mentor and icon, a once strong and confident woman who taught me so much by her example and faith, and someone who loved me in the worst of times. But I also experienced my five-year-old daughter’s loss of one of the most precious friendships she will ever experience — a friendship based on charm and whimsy, no expectations or judgment, and freedom to be exactly who God made her (and my grandma) to be.

Often, autism and dementia are viewed as thieves — faceless villains who steal and destroy. But in this story, autism and dementia were not the enemy; they were stepping stones to a beautiful and rare friendship.

~Amy L. Stout

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