The privilege of remembering for both of us: a grandmother’s journey through Alzheimer’s

By Dave Andrusko

For more than 25 years I’ve had the privilege of leading an adult Sunday school class. We share “Joys and Concerns” each week and since many of the members have parents who are aging rapidly and/or in declining health, we often talk about what that entails, not only for them, but for their siblings and even for the grandkids.

Yesterday we talked about one member’s mom. Another class member, who couldn’t be there, texted me about how much her dad, whose Alzheimer’s is growing progressively worse, enjoyed having the entire family over for Thanksgiving.

A while back I had coffee with another member of the class. We talked at length about how she and her siblings were sharing the duties of caring for their parents, one of whom has dementia, the other growing progressively more frail. More than any time, I realized the obvious: they needed help, especially encouragement and a willingness to pitch in, even if only in the most minimal way.

When we left, the conversation brought to mind something I’d written about more than once, because the experience had a profound impact on me. It concerned an elderly lady to whom my wife and I grew very close in her last few months.

We were not officially “family,” so we weren’t told any of the medical details. But two things were obvious to anyone (including those members of my Sunday school class who came to visit her and to love her): “Kay” (not her real name) had a mild-to-moderate case of dementia but nowhere near as severe as the staff thought.

In the last months of Kay’s life, I visited her most every day. I made sure she ate at least some of the soft food I brought for her; the staff was too undermanned to stay around to ensure that she ate the meals they had prepared for her. It wasn’t until after she died that I realized how much she reminded me of my own mother, who passed away in 1992.

Kay was a hoot with a delightful sense of humor. She just needed someone to take the time to listen as she spoke (admittedly) in circles.

This was way back in 2012. Coincidentally, I ran across a piece in the New York Times by Robert Leleux, and I immediately I thought of Kay. “Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s” was a primer on his book, an advanced look, at “The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.”

Naturally, Leleux’s experience with JoAnn (his grandmother who had Alzheimer’s) was a hundred times lengthier, more intense, and richer than anything Lisa and I could have developed in our short time with Kay. But in his deeply affectionate essay, I could hear echoes of our experience with a woman who often confused me with a long-ago neighbor—but liked me all the more for bringing back memories of the old neighborhood.

I will not cheat you out of the pleasure of reading “Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s” by going into any great detail. Let me just offer one quotation.

Leleux writes,

“I’d argue that, given our aging population and the Alzheimer’s epidemic, it’s essential that we reassess our thinking about the elderly and old age dementia. Certainly, a great deal of pain and hardship can accompany life’s third act (and, for that matter, any of its acts). But what I learned from my grandmother’s journey through Alzheimer’s was that my grief regarding her condition had largely to do with my failure to accept the change she was undergoing.

“Regardless of how I felt about it, JoAnn’s change was the truth. What was gone in her was not missing. And the more fully I understood that, the more present I was able to be during her final years. In that struggle to be present, to appreciate every minute spent ‘walking her to the garden gate,’ as we say back in Texas, JoAnn was once again my example. Like on that long-ago afternoon at the Houston art museum, she was still guiding my hand.”

In just a matter of a few months, Kay taught me many things, first and foremost what a tragic misunderstanding it is for anyone to say, “What’s the point? She won’t even remember that you had been there.”

Most of the time Kay knew me when I was there and appreciated every visit.

Even if on my next visit she’d forgotten about our previous times together, I knew I had been there.

And I was all the richer for having the privilege of remembering for both of us.