Walking around in a housecoat in public is not normal behavior for my grandmother. But Mary hasn’t been herself for several months. She was diagnosed with dementia a few months ago. Now, nothing’s normal.
Before Mary was diagnosed, I knew a little bit about dementia, or Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer Type—my grandmother’s full medical diagnosis. I watch TV, for God’s sake. And Nathan and I spent a few days back in eighth grade reading to the elderly at a rest home. Our mothers signed us up, wanting us to do something that built character. There were a few patients there who would forget who I was every time I visited, or who would talk to me like I was a daughter or a sister instead of a stranger. It freaked me out a little at first, but by my third visit, I got used to it.
I can say now with total authority that living with Mary is nothing like what I’ve seen on TV or what I experienced visiting some old folks a few times and reading to them from the Laura Ingalls Wilder collection. It sucks way worse. Like, when watching a movie about this stuff, sure, it’s slightly horrifying when the little old man gets lost picking blackberries, or the wife forgets who her husband is until the very end of the movie when they both die at the exact same time. But those aren’t real people. No matter how much those stories make you feel or cry, you still know they’re just stories, told with actors with healthy lives and fancy cars and big fat paychecks. And the people I met at the home definitely affected me, even though I was only thirteen years old and doing forced volunteer work. I still remember Cheryl with her Magnum, PI obsession, and Toni who made paper beads from old gift wrap. That feeling in my heart, that heavy ache when they mistook me for someone they loved from their past…I still feel it a bit just thinking of them. But even though I cared, I can’t pretend those visits didn’t make me feel grateful for my grandmother who was so energetic and healthy in comparison. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it because even if I cared about those people in the home, I didn’t love them. They weren’t my family, my grandmother. I didn’t get it then. But I do now.
Our pop culture exposure to Alzheimer’s did prepare me a little, I guess, but unless you’ve lived with someone with this disease, you have no idea how it really feels. Mary has a lot of the classic symptoms we all know about. She gets confused and stressed out sometimes. She forgets things—simple things, like where she put her glasses, and big things, like her late husband, Will. Sometimes she gets angry and even curses, something she would never have done before. She’ll repeat the same answer to the same question six times in one hour. Sometimes I will say good morning to her and she looks through me like I’m a ghost–not a stranger really, but someone from her past she can’t really place. Sometimes she seems lost.
And sometimes she literally is lost.