I was in middle school when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I only vaguely remember the night she called my parents from the Home Depot (about 3-4 miles from HER house) and admitted she was lost. Grandma didn’t know how to get home from there and she needed my parents to come rescue her.
I was just old enough to have begun to get curious about the differences between “me” and “adults” – and my grandmother being my namesake was of particular curiosity. How much was Grandma like me? How were we different? There was a little while where I was afraid if I knew too much about my grandmother I would turn into her (a little more literally than is actually probably mentally healthy). I look back and regret that fear… I wish I had taken time to get to know her.
They brought her home and “lost” her car keys. She was stuck with us while my Mom made a round of doctor appointments. I didn’t go, but I heard tidbits of questions about who is the president, what is the date, flashcards like that old memory game… and then a name for what was going on: Alzheimer’s disease.
Over the next several years my grandmother’s mind degraded. It is terrifying to watch. Even young and stupid, I didn’t know how my mom could bear it. But there was a strange (if somewhat terrifying) bright spot: she told a story.
You see, she was incredibly independent. And taking away her driver’s license had been pretty much the most horrible thing (in her mind!) anyone could do to her. There was no convincing her she was a dangerous driver (frankly, she had been for awhile!). And fortunately, she didn’t really blame my mother & uncle for this one: it was all the doctor.
Every few months or so there would be a new permutation of this story:
- “You remember that doctor? That doctor that took my license away. I read in the paper – I am pretty sure it was in the Sunday edition – I read that he lost his drivers license.”
- “You remember that doctor? After he took my license away he lost his car keys. I saw it in the paper, it was in the lost-and-found ads. Can you believe that? He lost his keys and had to put an ad in the paper!”
- “I read about that doctor. He lost his medical license. We should get me tested again ’cause I read in the paper that he was misdiagnosing people.”
- “I saw an article in the paper about that doctor. He was declared incompetent. He had his car taken away from him.”
- “That doctor got locked up. I saw it on the news. He got put in a sanitarium.”
God, it was heartbreaking. And it was hilarious.
It was one of those things in life that you either had to laugh or had to cry. It really was hilarious because she believed it. Thoroughly. And you could feel the anger behind these stories. The frustration of everything she had lost and she couldn’t really understand why, but her mind was trying to put it together in ways that made sense.
Fortunately, doctors diagnosed my grandmother and despite her rage (and yes, the level was sometimes rage at her “captivity”) she had the help she needed from professionals who kept her alive and comfortable. Thankfully, my grandmother had the doctors (yes even “that doctor”!) who treated her. Thankfully, my grandmother had children who loved her enough to bear these heartbreaking moments – and still did what was best for her because it was best for her.