The biggest problem today was trying to keep her from drinking the hot salsa that came with her taco salad lunch at the rehabilitation facility. She thought it was a drink. I envisioned flames erupting from her mouth. If you have a certain kind of mind, caring for an inherently mischievous elderly woman with Alzheimer’s can be pretty funny. For a comparison, think about trying to get a boisterous puppy to behave: warn all you want, train it as hard as you can, but to the puppy it’s just, “Blah, blah, blah, Puppy. Blah, blah, blah!” The puppy looks at you like you’re a complete idiot, which is exactly how you feel. And are.
It’s the same with someone with Alzheimers.
My eighty-eight year old neighbor and her late husband were two of the most generous and caring people I have ever known. It was not uncommon for them to take in the troubled children of friends, make them part of their family, and lead then gently and lovingly to productive young adulthood. They took to my soon-to-be wife and me in much the same way. We were looking for a place to live, having fallen in love in what might generously be called late middle age, and they offered us their rental house next door. We worked hard to renovate it and it is now an almost perfect beach cottage. It took us a few months, though, before we realized that they were looking not just for someone to take care of their cottage, but to look after them as well. To them we were like their grown children; to us they were like the parents we’d both lost. We spent all our spare time with them. Eventually, I was cooking their dinner almost every night. It was an honor.
Her husband died two years ago. He’d been covering for her growing dementia but now her affliction was all too obvious and rapidly progressive. She had been an athlete all her life and had been a strong crew rowing competitor. As recently as five years ago she’d be out on the water when it was calm just after dawn, gracefully pulling on the oars of her sleek white racing shell, in a heaven of her own making. It was beautiful to behold.
But the mental deterioration was faster than her speeding shell, especially after her husband died, and she was falling behind. She knew it and hated it, though she was too much of a lady to complain. Eventually, her splendid nephew was given her power of attorney and we arranged for her to have twenty-four hour care. But my wife and I were still the people she trusted most and, when especially agitated, she’d flee her own house and come next door to ours. We’d have tea and chat normally and calm her and then take her home again. It made her smile.
Then she fell and broke her hip. A simple break, easily repaired, but now she was in a rehabilitation facility working to build her strength up again. She’s a tough bird with lots of determination…when she’s reminded to be tough and be determined. That’s where I come in: I’m her resident bad guy. I tease her and push her and threaten the bullwhip to keep her going in physical therapy and she just laughs at me, or sticks out her tongue. That’s the kind of love we have—tough love, you might say. No matter how outrageous I am she still knows it’s love and she can depend on me.
Now, let me also confess that there are some real advantages to working with someone with Alzheimer’s. For example, you can wheel her around the garden at the rehab facility and every flowering plant will be new and you can use your limited botanical knowledge repeatedly—and if you don’t know the plant you can make up its name. Also, if you are an older guy like me, you can tell the same tired stories you bore your friends with, over and over, but they’ll always be fresh for her and she’ll always laugh. What could be better? I just hit my replay button and off we go again. She’s a terrific audience. Here’s another example: my wife often asks me difficult questions like, when are you going to fix the clogged bathroom sink? If you are almost completely incompetent in the world of fixing anything, this is a vexing question. But my neighbor? She always asks the same questions and I always give her the same answers…and she is very impressed. It’s very comforting, but mostly for me.
She’ll be back home soon, looked after by her daily caregivers and us. But until then, my biggest challenge is to keep her from drinking the hot salsa. It’s the least I can do for this sweet old trouper.
She’s the kind of lady who, by rights, ought to be immortal for all she’s given to the world.
Will North is a novelist. His latest novel, “Too Clever By Half,” is the second volume in the Davies & West mystery series, set in Cornwall, England. It will be released June 10, 2015.