Every so often, I run across articles on Alzheimer’s – what it is, symptoms, how to cope if you’re a caregiver. I don’t agree with a lot of what I read and here’s why: I saw this disease up close and personal.
My mother’s onset started several years before she was diagnosed and while there were some symptoms that parallel what medical literature discusses, there were many other symptoms no one ever mentions. Take this Huffington Post article.
The first item on this list – stealing or other law-breaking activity – i.e., the inability to distinguish right from wrong – didn’t apply to my mother. She always knew what was right or wrong. But she believed that the woman who cleaned my parents’ home twice a month was stealing from them. She was in her seventies when this happen, around 74, 75.
One day, for instance, she called me in a panic. Her wedding ring had disappeared, she was sure the cleaning lady had stolen it. She asked me to call my friend Millie Gemondo and ask her if she could see where the ring was. So I did. Millie is an incredible psychic and pinpointed that my mother had put her ring in a bowl or some other object in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. Sure enough, that’s where my mother found it.
But before she found it, my dad placated my mother’s paranoia – a BIG symptom – by telling her to put her valuables in a hallway closet, that he then locked. Many objects went into this closet. But it didn‘t matter. When anything in the house vanished, it was because the cleaning woman had taken them or she’d stolen the key to this closet.
Frequent falling: the second item in the Post article. It didn’t apply to my mother. She and my dad were runners for most of their adult lives, six days a week, one or two miles. She had great balance.
Forgetting the function of objects: Nope. That didn‘t apply until the disease had advanced to the point where we had to put her in an Alzheimer’s unit. By then, she didn’t even know the purpose of a fork.
Eating inappropriate things: Nope. She never ate paper. Or sawdust. Or anything that wasn’t actually edible.
Inability to recognize sarcasm: Didn’t apply. She had a quick wit, my mother did, and always recognized sarcasm, even when the disease was advanced.
Depression: Yes. One day she drove off to a friend’s house to play bridge with a group of women with whom she’d played bridge for years and got lost. Another time, she and my dad went to the mall and he waited outside of a department store while she went inside. She forgot he was waiting for her outside and walked the three miles home and he didn’t know it. I got a frantic call from him after the mall had closed, the cops were called, it was a mess. Meanwhile, she was sitting on the front porch at home, she didn’t have a key, and this was in the days before cell phones. Depressed? You bet. She knew enough to know that she was losing it.
Unfocused staring: No. What should be here is crying jags, an awareness that something terrible was happening inside of her that she couldn’t fix.
The other item that should be listed here is something no one talks about: visits from the dead that are utterly and completely real to an Alzheimer’s patient. In the beginning, this puzzled me. But in the two and a half years my mother was in this Alzheimer’s unit, I came to think of Alzheimer’s as a spiritually-based disease. My mother, in spite of her beliefs in heaven and hell from a Catholic upbringing, was terrified of dying. Alzheimer’s enabled her to sample the afterlife without actually going there. After all, if your consciousness isn’t fully focused in physical reality, then it has to be focused elsewhere.
When she told me her siblings or her mother had visited her – all of whom were dead- I came to believe her. I do think the dead stopped by to say hello and to ease her way into the afterlife. This suspicion was confirmed when a year or so into my mother’s confinement in the Alzheimer’s unit, my friend Millie was visiting and we drove over to the facility. My mother announced that her two brothers were here, visiting. Millie, who sometimes sees the dead, said, “Your younger brother, is his name Dick?”
My mother’s eyes lit up. “Yes. Dick, such a sweetheart.”
Millie gestured to my mother’s right. “He’s sitting right next to you.”
I’d never told Millie anything about my mother’s siblings – not their names, not that they were all dead, not that my mother claimed they visited. I was blown away. And ever since, I have believed that Alzheimer’s is a spiritual condition, as most diseases probably are. But with Alzheimer’s, dementia, brain traumas, the soul is offered a way to sample the afterlife, to step into it before actually going there.
Rob’s 92-year-old mother, presently in an assisted living facility, has two imaginary male friends who visit her frequently. An electrician, a cook, who have names. They don’t exist in this reality, but who’s to say they aren’t real?
The bottom line is simple. We don’t know what death is, what the brain is capable of, and we have really don’t know how thin the veil may be between the living and the dead.