Living With Grandma “Who Died?”

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.

September, 2009

I moved out of my grandma’s house to attend college in Miami in August 2007.  My grandmother was left to live alone, but luckily my parents lived only about 10 minutes away.  Just as she did when I was living there, my mother came over to check up on my grandma every morning, and she added a daily afternoon visit to her schedule.

On the day that this story took place, I was in West Palm Beach to be with my family after the passing of my paternal grandmother. While I was up there, I decided to go visit my grandma Betty and spend some time with her.

“We need to break the news to her today,” my mom said in the car as we drove closer.

I wondered how she was going to take it. My grandmothers had known each other for over thirty years, since my parents were high school sweethearts and got married. They saw each other often at my brothers’ volleyball games, were extremely friendly and never forgot to send each other birthday and holiday cards. I knew my grandma was going to be upset about the loss of her old friend.

When we arrived at the house, my grandma was overjoyed to see me. She smiled, hugged me tightly and told me how good it was to see me after “all these years,” even though I had visited her only a few weeks earlier. I knew better than to waste my breath correcting her, so I just smiled and nodded.

My mother and I sat down with her at the long wooden dining room table where she was drinking a cup of coffee and eating a large slice of red velvet cake topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.  As her disease has progressed and she gets older, my grandmother eats more and more like a little kid.  She no longer has any interest in gourmet meals from her old favorite restaurants, but she can’t get enough of grilled cheese, chicken fingers, Egg McMuffins and desserts of any kind.  This scared us originally, as we worried about her health, but her doctors say that her heart and blood pressure are fine and she hasn’t gained much weight.  At this point, why not let her eat what makes her happy?

“Mom, Sheila passed away yesterday,” my mother announced loudly so that she would hear.

My grandma’s light eyes looked up slowly with a sad but confused look. She looked at my mother with her head cocked slightly.

“Sheila Kurlander, Mom.  Randy’s mother…”

“Oh, that Sheila! Really? That’s terrible! Was she sick?”

“Yes, she’s been sick for a while now. She was fighting cancer. Remember I told you she had cancer and that she wasn’t doing very well?”

“Yes, yes. Gosh, that’s terrible. What kind of cancer was it again?”

“It started as lung cancer, but by the time they caught it, it had spread to her brain, lymph nodes and kidneys,” my mother said, rolling her eyes at me from across the table. I understood that she had probably explained this to my grandma every day for the last two months.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” my grandma said sadly. “I liked Sheila.”

“I know you did, Mom. You’re going to the funeral with us next week. It’s not until Tuesday, which is six days from now.”

You must always give my grandma plenty of notice before getting her to leave the house. She needs enough time to fill the 40 pockets of her huge leather purse with anything, and I mean absolutely anything, that she feels she might need for her outing- a shower cap in case it rains, sunglasses for if it’s sunny, extra underwear (sometimes up to four pairs), entire Kleenex boxes and other random things that I can’t even predict. She has never failed to shock me.  And my grandma doesn’t attend any big event without having her hair and nails done first.

“I’d better get to the beauty parlor then,” my grandmother said in an alarmed voice.

“Mom, you have six days. Don’t worry, there is plenty of time for you to get ready,” my mom assured her. “I’ll call and make an appointment with Mary for the day before the funeral.”

“Who died again?”  The bewildered look in her eyes had returned.

“Sheila,” my mom said with a sigh.  “She exhausts me,” she mumbled as she stood up to go refill her cup of coffee.

I switched the subject to a lighter one and updated my grandma on my life in Miami. I made lots of small talk, telling her about my job, school, friends and dog.

“Coco likes to bark at all the bigger dogs on Lincoln Road, but when they get close she hides between my feet,” I told her, and she responded by cracking up.

“I love Coco,” my grandma said.  “I use to play every night with her.”

She asked questions and giggled the way a five-year old would and I couldn’t help but notice how happy she seemed. My grandma might not be all there, but it was refreshing to see her so carefree. She had certainly come a long way from the depressed, paranoid and improperly-medicated person I once began living with three years earlier.

“Hey…” she said across the table in a low voice, almost a whisper. “Who died again?”

I heard my mother groan from the kitchen. I held my breath a bit and hoped she wasn’t going to come back into the dining room to explain once again.

If there is anything I could change about my grandma’s situation (besides eliminating Alzheimer’s Disease altogether), it would be the toll it has taken on my mother.  She has lost her mother and best friend, and constantly has to worry about my grandma’s happiness and safety.  It’s caused her a great deal of understandable sadness and stress, but she’s also had a really hard time accepting what has happened.  For a long time my mother would repeat information over and over to my grandma that I knew she was just going to forget, and then she’d get upset when my grandma forgot.  I never understood why she would remind her of hair and doctor appointments that were days away.

“You do know that Grandma is still going to wake up that morning and have no clue that she has a doctor’s appointment, right?” I’d ask her.

I’m not sure whether my mother was hopeful that things might get better or if she just didn’t want to believe that this had really become her life.  Seeing the disease take over my grandma was definitely hard, but once we got her medications balanced and her moods stabilized I think things got a lot easier.   My grandma was pleasant and cheerful once again, and a majority of the crazy mood swings and depression disappeared.  There is nothing pleasant about Alzheimer’s disease, but I’m thankful that my grandma is not in any pain.  She is not even aware that she is sick.  Even though she doesn’t always remember who we are, she does seem to understand that she is surrounded by people who love her and I can sense that she is content.

Thankfully my mother did not walk back in the room and try to explain who died again.   My grandma and I sat in silence for a moment before she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and started to laugh. I laughed back with her because I accepted the fact that she isn’t going to get any better a long time ago, but it sure was good to see her happy.

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4 thoughts on “Living With Grandma “Who Died?”

  1. Alzheimers does give one gift to the recipient and you have mentioned it here. They actually don’t recognise ‘worry’ any more once they have reached a certain point. I know it is small consolation – I am happy you have tuned into your dear grandmother’s reality and glad she is able to enjoy you and the rest of the family most of the time. Lesley

  2. It actually makes me happy that she has no idea what is happening to her. After watching my other grandmother die painfully from cancer, fully aware that she was going to die, I don’t think it’s so bad to be clueless. My grandma is happy. She laughs at silly things and enjoys life even though she can’t remember yesterday. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Casey–these are my poems about my mom and her struggle with Alzheimer’s
    http://susandanielseden.wordpress.com/tag/alzheimers/

  4. ansuyo says:

    Hi, I just found a comment from you on my blog in the SPAM folder! I hope it hasn’t been there too long. I definately identify with this story. You repeat and repeat. We have learned not to tell my Mother-in-law certain things until she needs to know – right before. I handle it way better than my husband does, because it is his mother. Strange how that works. The happiness thing — as Ginny gets younger and younger in her mind, she gets more innocent looking. It’s hard to describe, but it’s as if the years have erased from her face in many ways. I don’t know that she’s happy, but she’s certainly less concerned with the things of the world. Thank you for sharing your stories! Angie:)

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