Here, and yet not here. When a loved one has Alzheimer’s.

This past weekend we traveled to Athens, Alabama to visit my paternal grandparents and other members of my dad’s family.  Athens is about an hour and a half to two hours north of Birmingham, up in the Huntsville area.  So from Atlanta, it’s about a five-hour drive.  Fortunately it’s almost all interstate so it’s not a bad drive.

My grandparents are at an assisted living/rehabilitation facility.  They are both happy and well taken care of, but I know they would both rather be in their own home.  Unfortunately, that can never happen because my grandfather lost a leg in a motorcycle accident four years ago and his health has declined little by little ever since.  My grandmother is a small woman and physically cannot care for him the way he would need to be cared for.

My grandmother also has Alzheimer’s.

So as much as she might want to take my grandfather home and tend to him like she always thought she would in their golden years, she all too quickly reached the day that she can no longer even care for herself.  My grandfather is in the rehabilitation section of the facility, and my grandmother is in the “lodge”, where otherwise healthy people live with a staff of nurses and orderlies to help them go about their days without families having to worry about whether or not Grandmother will take the car for a spin at midnight or set the kitchen on fire {again}.

I hadn’t seen my grandmother for a few months before yesterday.  The last time we saw her, she knew who I was and who my babies were.  This time, it was like a light had gone off.  There wasn’t any recognition in her eyes when she saw me.  She was glad to have the company and was excited to see me, but I think anyone who walked through the door would have gotten the same reaction.  She knew who I was, but she didn’t know that I was me.  It’s kind of hard to explain.  In her room are several large framed photos of the entire family that we had made for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  She looks at them and can tell you who certain people are.  I pointed to my picture and said “this is me, I’m this person.”  She said, “oh that’s my oldest son’s daughter, she lives in Georgia and she has two babies.”  So she knew that she had a granddaughter who lived in Georgia and had two children, but couldn’t make the connection that that person was me, in the room with her.

It was heartbreaking.  I’m not going to lie.  Just a few short months ago she remembered me and remembered a lot of things about me.  Now I am almost a stranger to her.  She used to have these few jokes she would tell people over and over {and over and over and over}.  She can’t remember them anymore.  {The whole familly has mixed feelings about that, haha.}  When I would try to talk to her about how she was feeling or what she does from day to day in her ‘apartment’, she would giggle and change the subject.  She ritualizes, which is common in Alzheimer’s patients.  She got into her bed, but before she could do so she had to take her shoes off and line them up just so, that way it would be easier to get them on.  She has a policeman bobble-head on her bedside table {my grandfather was a police officer, as is my father}.  Before she could get into bed she had to bobble the policeman’s head a few times.  Cole picked up the bobble-head and moved it, and we had to put it back in the exact same place for her before she could get into the bed.  Then she had to adjust her pillow just so, and pull her legs in just so, and pull the covers over her just so.  From what I read the rituals are comforting, because it helps people with Alzheimer’s to know what is coming next.  I won’t even get into her bathroom ritual {mostly because it takes forever}.

She talked about how she would like to go back to her own home.  She wanted to go get her husband and take him back to their home so that they could be together, and wouldn’t that just be so wonderful if they could both be back at their own home.  She doesn’t know that we had to sell their home to help pay for their care in the assisted living facility.  She doesn’t know that their entire life has been parceled out to everyone in the family, just so that everything of value {monetary and sentimental} would stay in the family.  She doesn’t realize that she will never be able to go “home” again.  That crushed me.

We were only able to spend about an hour with her before she got very tired and wanted to nap.  I also didn’t want the kids to get rowdy in case it might upset her.  I also didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, because it was obvious she didn’t know who we were.  She talked about my aunts and uncles and some of my cousins, but they live near them and visit a couple of times a week.  I didn’t want her to be creeped out by the strangers in her room, even though she was glad to have visitors at first.

Zac asked me on the way over yesterday morning if I was prepared.  I told him I understood what would be like.  He told me that understanding and experiencing it were two different things.  He was right.  I wasn’t really prepared for her to have no idea who I was.  It was much harder than I thought it would be.  Zac worked at an assisted living nursing home as a teenager, so he is really comfortable with elderly people and people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.  I am glad that he has navigated these waters before, because if yesterday was an indicator of how things are going to be for however long my grandmother is with us, I’m going to really need him to lean on when things get worse.

Alzheimer’s really really sucks.  And I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  To have someone who has known and loved you, and who you have known and loved, for your entire life lose all memory of you, of their family, of their entire life, is just indescribably painful.  They are gone without being gone.  Here, and yet not here.  It’s just not fair.

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