From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.
After tossing and turning for the past three or four hours, I had finally managed to drift into a light sleep when I sensed someone creep up and stare at me. I pulled the thick white down comforter over my face in an attempt to block the sunlight and hide even though I was burning up. A second later I peeked out, directing my eyes to the doorway to see that she was still there and then over to the clock. It was 7:30 a.m., an ungodly hour to a 20 year old who was slinging drinks in a loud bar just four hours before. I rarely awoke before noon, but in the two weeks that I had been staying with my grandmother, I had seen almost 14 mornings. Stuck to the tan leather couch by a thin layer of my own sweat, my tired body yearned to stay there.
“Get up!” my grandma demanded, looking frazzled. “I need your help. They took my purse again!”
“They took it? Who is th–” I started to ask but quickly cut myself off. I bit down on my tongue hard. This repetitive wake-up call was causing me to grow impatient.
Stay calm, Casey, I told myself. She’s been through a lot lately and she’s not in the right mind. It’s not her fault. Be nice.
These reminders failed to keep me from feeling angry as I slowly peeled myself off the warm leather couch. I did a quick stretch, made a promise to find her purse, and began checking her usual hiding spots.
“I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” I assured her, hoping she would calm down.
My family had noticed my grandma becoming increasingly forgetful in the months before my grandfather’s sudden death, but we blamed it on her old age and didn’t think much of it. After he passed, her mental health took a sharp decline and I hardly recognized the woman I grew up being so close with. My grandma’s forgetfulness was now mixed with sadness, confusion and mood swings where she would go from being calm to completely irrational in a matter of seconds. We were worried and did not want her being home alone, so four days after my grandfather’s death I packed a small bag and drove across town to stay with her for as long as she needed me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The first place I checked for the purse was the laundry room. I looked inside the washer and dryer and on the shelves above, my eyes still heavy and half-asleep. My grandma had absolutely no perception of date or time- she’d sleep for a few hours, wake up and wander the house for a while, then go back to bed, always thinking it was a new morning each time she awoke. After two weeks I had somewhat adapted to her erratic schedule because I had no choice. Whenever she was awake at all hours of the night, she found reasons for me to be as well. I was nudged and woken up when she decided to do laundry at 4 a.m., only to realize she forgot how to use the washer. I was awakened when she was hungry, bored, or confused, and of course when she misplaced things.
I found no purse in the laundry room, so I continued on to the huge walk-in closet of her guest bedroom.
“Do you remember if you hid it in here?” I asked.
“I didn’t hide it anywhere. Somebody took it!” she said convincingly, nodding her head.
The bewildered look in her ice blue eyes as she anxiously watched me search told me she honestly had no recollection of where she had stashed her purse. Bouts of paranoia caused her to stuff it with anything she considered valuable and to carry it on her shoulder around the house. The only time she appeared to take off her purse was when she showered, slept (she cuddled it like a stuffed animal) or got even more paranoid and felt the need to hide it. She often forgot where she stashed it, thus creating a repetitive game of hide-and-seek for me.
The walk-in closet was usually where it turned up, hoarded somewhere among the endless clutter. My grandma spent a lot of time in there, aimlessly rummaging through her belongings. The closet was like a time capsule, housing old clothes, toys, exercise equipment, boxes of papers and family photos, holiday decorations and anything else my grandparents had tossed in there over the decades. To navigate through it, you had to step over and around stacked boxes, rolls of Christmas wrapping paper and other random junk that had fallen to the ground. It was a broken hip waiting to happen for a 79 year-old who was unsteady on her feet to begin with. Instead of searching through the messy closet once more, I decided to eliminate the problem.
“Grandma, I’m cleaning out this closet before you trip and kill yourself in here. Have a seat on the bed, watch what I’m clearing and we’ll figure out what you do and don’t need to keep,” I said firmly. “And in the process, I’m sure your purse will turn up.”
“Why the hell would it be in there? I haven’t been in that closet in years!” she started to argue, but then nodded and sat down. The look on my face warned her not to challenge me any further. I grabbed a handful of black heavy-duty garbage bags that I would surely need and got to work.
“Do we really need these anymore?” I asked, holding up a set of work-out videos from the early 90’s. “You don’t even have a VCR to watch them.”
“I guess not,” she said with a sigh.
Into the Hefty bag they went. I had two full bags within 20 minutes and was pleased with my progress when I looked up to see that she was quietly sobbing.
“What’s wrong, Grandma?” I asked, sitting beside her.
“I don’t even know anymore,” she said between sobs. “I don’t remember what is going on these days. But I’m sad, confused, and I feel like everybody is mad at me for being this way.”
I reached for a box of tissues and thought I was going to need them as well. I wiped the tears off her cheeks and rubbed her back with my other hand.
“Nobody’s mad at you, Grandma. We’re just worried about you and trying to help, but we’re just as confused as you. I’m sorry if I snapped earlier, but I’ve been losing a lot of sleep over this lately.”
I went on trying to explain that everyone was just extremely stressed out, nobody was angry, that we loved her and we were going to do everything possible to get things under control. I spoke to her as if she was five years old, realizing it was the most effective way.
My grandma had the mood swings, temper and emotions of a kindergartener, and over the past few months we had slowly switched roles. Though I didn’t understand, I rubbed her shoulders and tried to be understanding. I had no idea what it was like to be old, to lose a spouse, or to be suffering from the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which we were slowly realizing she had. All I understood was that she needed a lot of care and that I was going to be there for a while, but that was okay. I would be there as long as she needed me.
The purse turned up about 10 minutes later, buried beneath some old tennis racquets on the closet shelf. My grandma was overjoyed to have it back and still denied that she had put it there.
“Whoever took it from me must have gotten scared and hid it,” she swore.
The next week my mother and I got her into the neurologist’s office and the process of finding the right combination of prescriptions to balance her moods began. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are treatments to help with cognitive and behavioral symptoms. I slept on that uncomfortable leather couch for five months before I had my bed moved in for the other nine months that I lived there. It was an interesting year with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.