As I mentioned in my last post, my mother-in-law came to stay with us at the end of summer and just left Friday to go home. We don’t get to see her often, as Pennsylvania and Washington are nearly 3,000 miles apart. She is suffering from dementia, and every time we do see her, it is obvious to us how much her condition has worsened since the last time we saw her.
The only other person I have been around who struggled with dementia was my grandmother, who lived her last years in a nursing home in Texas. I didn’t get to see her very much either, and noticed the obvious progression of the disease every time I did. The last time I visited her, before her death at the age of 95 in 2010, she barely recognized me. When she did figure out who I was, she said, “Tanya, you got fat!” Which seriously, wasn’t true! I had just run my first half-marathon and was training for another 10K. I was in the best shape of my life at that time. But I definitely wasn’t the awkward, long and lanky teenager I was in high school – and maybe that’s how she remembered me.
So when Jerry came to stay with us in the middle of August, I didn’t really know what to expect.
Jerry and my father-in-law, Lloyd, married when she was still a teenager, and they started a family right away. As a young wife and mom, she was the ultimate multi-tasker, raising seven stairstep children, running a home daycare, and somehow managing to sell Tupperware as a side business! She was also the expert penny-pincher as she cooked from scratch, served homegrown food from her enormous garden, cloth-diapered, shopped at thrift stores and yard sales, and hung laundry to dry on the clothesline. A quiet person, always with a listening ear and unlimited patience, I can say that out of the 23 years I have known her, I’ve never heard her yell.
Dementia is an odd and cruel disease. Not only does it mercilessly ransack precious memories, it steals basic skills you have had since childhood – like getting yourself dressed, tying your shoes, or making a simple sandwich. You know you can do it, you’ve done it all your life, but you just can’t remember the steps. It causes your thoughts and words to become so jumbled and intertwined that you get confused about the simplest of things. So many times, Jerry would want to tell me something, and she absolutely could not get her thoughts together to express herself. And I knew she felt frustrated. I’m not sure she even understands that she is suffering from a disease. She would say things like, “I’m bad, I can’t remember. I’m so dumb.” It was heartbreaking. I would give her a hug and say, “No you’re not! We all have trouble remembering things we want to say!” She would laugh.
Even more heartbreaking were times she would tell me, “Well, I’m going to go home now,” thinking her house was down the street. Each and every time I had to tell her (because I couldn’t allow her to wander out the door into our neighborhood), “I’m sorry, you’re still in Washington, and your home is too far away to walk to.” She would become very upset, sometimes even crying. Other times she would ask if we could go visit her mom or dad, both of whom died when when she was young. I never had the heart to tell her that her parents weren’t around. I just said, “Maybe we can see them later,” and that would appease her for the moment.
Interestingly, the whole time she was here, she never forgot about Austen and River, and would get so excited whenever we told her they were coming over. She has always adored babies and children, and I think one of her hobbies was (and still is) holding a sweet baby in her arms.
I had no idea this is what dementia does to a person. I just wasn’t around my grandmother enough to know how much it affects them in their every day life, and I can’t imagine how awful it must be to live constantly confused and wondering what is going on, wondering why you are sleeping every night in this strange house that is not your home, with people you do not really know, believing you are in a completely different time period. How awful it must be to think that your sister or friend hasn’t called or come to see you in so long – because you have forgotten that they passed away years before. I can also see how it makes it hard for others to want to spend time around patients with dementia. It can be frustrating to know that they probably won’t remember the things you talked about, the things they had been confused about and you thought you had helped them understand. They most likely will be in the same place of confusion the next day, or just the next hour.
Jerry usually knew who Andy, her son, was, but she never understood that I was her daughter-in-law. She thought I was hired help, and that we worked together. Maybe I reminded her of someone from her past. Since Andy goes out of town for his job so much, she would get very depressed when he wasn’t around. I came to realize that Andy was her only link to home, in her mind. When he wasn’t around, she was in a strange place with people she considered mere acquaintances.
I also came to realize that even though Jerry’s memory is gradually deteriorating, that like every other human being, she thrived on being loved in the here and now, regardless of whether she would remember it an hour later. Every moment with her was a new moment to show her kindness, patience, and understanding. Every moment was an opportunity to try to make her laugh and feel good, and to show her respect and allow her to keep her dignity as a human being. Once she told me, “I should pay you back for all the things you do for me.” No. This is a woman who spent her life loving on and caring for others, and she deserves it in return. Good karma. Over time, even though she never quite figured out who I was, she knew she was loved here in this strange house and she knew I was her friend. She even told Andy one time that I was her best friend.
This is why we threw her a little going-home party on her last night here. I love parties and I love finding a reason to celebrate with a special dinner. One day, we looked at a cookbook together with full-page, glossy photographs of comfort food. She pointed to a photo of a savory pot roast surrounded by onions and gravy, and said it was one of her favorites. Then there was the picture of a big pot of steaming mashed potatoes with melted butter drizzled over the top – also one of her favorites. I asked her what kind of cake she liked. Chocolate, with chocolate frosting. Of course! I was forming the menu in my mind: pot roast simmered in gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, homemade yeast rolls, and chocolate cake.
Cooking is one of my favorite ways of showing my love. If I ever cook a big meal for you, there must be something about you that I like. But I love cooking so much, sometimes I feel guilty when I love someone through cooking – I mean, I might get more joy out of cooking a meal for you than you do eating it! ;)
River would have preferred starting with dessert. (I’m a cook, not so much a baker. So, yes, I got a little help from QFC.)
Even though the next morning she didn’t remember the party, and she didn’t even remember that she was finally getting to go back home to Pennsylvania, I know that she felt loved and cherished during those last hours she spent in our house. And maybe if she has a chance to look at these pictures, it will trigger a memory, or least that feeling of being special and loved in that strange house so far away in Washington State.