Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fading: Our Journey with Alzheimer's

I grew up thinking my grandparents would live forever.  I have been privileged to know all four of them, seeing them on a regular basis.  They look the same year-to-year, so it never seemed like they were aging as a child.

Then my grandpa starting forgetting people's names.

It's the story of Alzheimer's you usually hear.  It was just different to experience it first hand.

My grandpa has always been a very slow, deliberate person.  He takes time to think before he talks, while his wife and kids zoom ahead in the conversation.  So, at first, his memory loss was hard to detect because it fit in with his personality.

As things progressed, it became more apparent when he couldn't remember his granddaughters' names or when he got frustrated when the day's schedule varied.

Our family began to ask, "What can we do to help?"

When he fell and broke his hip, he was placed in an assisted care home for a few weeks.  Because he was on pain meds and he couldn't feel anything, he didn't understand that his hip was broken.  He kept wanting to get up and walk around.  Also, it was hard to communicate with him. 

But when I walked into his hospital room, his face brightened and he smiled.  He opened his arms and said, "My friends are here!"  I leaned in to give him a hug, and he gave me a kiss on my cheek, his scruffy chin rubbing against my skin.  Physical displays of affection are not common in my family; I cannot remember my grandpa ever giving me a kiss in my life.  And here it was: the loving peck on the cheek that meant more to me than I realized at the moment.

Walking with the family at the Walk to End Alzheimer's
Later, to keep him company and give my grandma some relief, we hung out with him at the care home.  My mom pulled out a deck of cards and we played War together.  Then, I played an Ace and Grandpa played a Jack.  I started to take the pile.

"Hey, I won," he objected.

Then I realized that he thought the face card was worth more than the Ace because there was only one symbol on it.  After that, aces were the lowest card in the deck.

Later, we taught him how to play Tic-Tac-Toe on my iPhone.  It was a little difficult to teach him the concept of a touch screen, but he got the hang of it.  We would always let him win.  He knew enough to block us but couldn't quite grasp the strategy to win.

Now, Grandpa loves coming over to my new home with my grandmother and sweeping.  He has become a neat freak and a little chatter box, which is a cute change.  He talks to the dust on the ground as he sweeps.  It is the cutest thing as he tries to urge the dust bunnies into a pile.  "Come on.  Keep going," he tells them.

You have to maintain a sense of humor through it all.  When my grandpa talked to the Santa statue at Christmas, you have to laugh and not focus on the disease.  While it feels counter-intuitive to treat this grown man like a toddler, you start naturally transitioning to embrace the circle of life.  Your tone of voice changes when you speak to him, pitching higher like you would to someone who is a child.

In a way, he is a child.  He has lived his life and is now returning from whence he came.  He will eventually return to the arms of His Creator.  The circle of life.

I've learned through this process that joy is something you keep when times are good and bad.  It's something that sticks around; it doesn't waver.  It is hard to watch someone you love waste away.  Yet through it all, we have found joy, and we cling to the hope of God's promises.

Soli Deo Gloria.

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Related Posts:
Finding Security: A Tribute to Fathers
Behind the Scenes: A tribute to mothers
When Family Is More Than Blood