Those who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s know what this means.
The term was made famous when Nancy Reagan described her husband’s slip into a distant world. We all get its meaning, but only those of us who live with it truly understand it.
My father-in-law, “Gramps” to all of us, started experiencing lapses in judgment about 15 years ago. At first it was of little consequence, just slight confusion and poor decision-making. It slipped into forgetfulness and some short-term memory loss. Within a few years the confusion grew, and the memory loss became more profound. Simple household tasks were becoming off-limits, and driving was no longer safe. His wife assumed the 24-hour responsibility, and the 36-hour day. As it became no longer safe for him to be left unattended at home, Gramps became a frequent face at our house, allowing his wife a few precious hours to herself. Then sitters became part of the routine, and eventually, a search for an appropriate facility to relocate him.
While this was happening, the impression my kids had of their grandfather changed as well. Only my oldest son has memories of Gramps when he was “whole” – when he worked, drove a car, and remembered their names. My middle son remembers him in the beginning of his decline. He recalls going fishing, throwing a ball, going on vacations together. But my little guy has only known Alzheimer’s Gramps.
In a way, the little guy has the easiest load to cope with, because he only remembers Gramps the way he is now. He didn’t have to watch him slip away from us. He understands what Alzheimer’s is, and knows first-hand what it means.
In his prime, Gramps was an amazing man. He worked tirelessly for his family. In a story we can all relate to today, Gramps worked two jobs to rebuild his family’s losses after Hurricane Betsy. He was generous, kind, and polite to a fault. His wife never touched a vacuum cleaner, or pumped gas. When his children cried at night, he paced the floor with them. He served in the Navy with his twin brother, and served his community as a Shriner.
He currently resides at a skilled-care facility for Veterans, the third residential facility we’ve placed him in. It’s not a VA facility, but a partnership between the state and the VA. As a war vets home, it’s mostly men, and a place where he seems to feel comfortable with his neighbors.
Which brings me to today.
We had a lacrosse game in Baton Rouge, and stopped to see Gramps at his “home” on our way home this afternoon. While we adults visit often, we keep our visits with the kids controlled, limited to times when we think Gramps will be receptive to visitors, and under conditions that won’t freak them out.
We arrived in the early afternoon, and I ushered the boys to the family room, while hubby went to retrieve Gramps from the secure Alzheimer’s unit. Some of the other residents are in states of deeper decline, and visiting the unit can be uncomfortable even for adults. So Gramps greeted the boys in the game room, where the air hockey and pool tables waited, and other families visited with their loved ones. We spent about an hour visiting with him, playing games, and talking.
Watching them interact with their grandfather was a beautiful thing. They played pool with patience, explaining the rules with every turn, and laughing along when things got confusing. They reminded him of their names, what grade they’re in, and promised to visit more often.
As the rate of his decline continues to accelerate, opportunities like today will come less often. Catching him on a good day will be a gift, and the number of times they get to make memories with their grandfather will decrease. And when he can no longer interact with them, and no longer remembers them, they will have something to cling to. So will I.