Growing up my grandmother was not the warm, fuzzy, cuddly type. She was calculating, manipulative and sometimes just downright mean. One of my earliest memories of her was getting a Christmas gift of money from her. We opened up our cards and there were different amounts for me and my siblings. My brother and I were given $20 while my sister, a clear favorite, was given $40. Our gifts were based on how “good” we were to her that year. At an early age, my mother had to sit us down and explain, in the kindest of ways, that Grandma was sick but we were not allowed to take it out on each other.
She had asked my brother to paint her house in preparation for selling it. My brother, and a team of his friends, obliged. Afterward she accused him to trying to swindle money from her. After he spent his summer trying to make her house look better. We were asked to clean her house on multiple occasions, we were given butter knives to look for intruders upon returning to her house from an outing and learned that we should just steer clear of her when she said things like “I’ve been thinking….” Her antics continued until we were old enough to decide if we wanted a relationship with her … or not.
Ten years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t really care about her. But, because we all shared this biological connection, I helped my dad and aunts care for her. We did what a lot of families do to help someone with Alzheimer’s maintain independence: took her grocery shopping, coordinated doctor’s appointments, picked up medications at the pharmacy and lined up daytime companions while we worked. As most families mourn a decline in a person’s faculties, most of us didn’t care because she was just that awful to us growing up.
Then, something happened. As the disease progressed she became so loving, caring, sweet and funny. She welcomed us into her home (and later nursing home room) with open arms, a sweet smile and an old song. She became grateful for the care and attention. She became interested in our lives and our children. She became the mother and grandmother we had always hoped and wished for.
This past week I took my children to visit her at her nursing home. She didn’t remember my name, but was genuinely happy to see me. She smiled as she sang “My Little Wooden Shoes” for my kids. It struck me that, due to our long distance and the progression of the disease, this was potentially the last time I may see her. I left and actually shed a tear thinking that I was going to miss her. Not my grandmother, but this sweet, funny and sassy woman who is now occupying her body.
Our experience is not common. Most people who play a part in caregiving for their relative with Alzheimer’s endure a stressful and upsetting change in their personality that can be marred with anger and fear. It is important to not deal with these life changes along and reach out for help. Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association can provide important resources for people who are in the position where they are caring for an aging loved one with this terrible disease.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs people of their families and their precious memories that frequently leaves the patient in a state of anxiety and despair. But, our experience has been completely different. We have been given a gift of a loving and caring mother and grandmother that we would not have otherwise known if it weren’t for this disease. Although Alzheimer’s has taken so much from her, so much more has been given to us.