Mom’s life is moment to moment. Literally. Her short term memory is very nearly gone. She doesn’t remember any events of her life, she can’t make sense out of her surroundings, she can’t repeat what she just said or hold in her consciousness anything that anyone else has just said or done. Even the simplest tasks elude her.
I often bring food for her to snack on. She long ago lost the ability to take the food from my hand. It was as if she couldn’t focus on what part of the thing in front of her she was supposed to grasp. She often grabbed 6 to 8 inches in front of my hand to take what I was offering, or she’d grab my finger instead of what I was holding. It’s not her eyesight. It’s the Alzheimer’s scrambling her brain so she can’t make sense of what she is seeing.
So, I started putting whatever I brought for her to eat in her hand. A cold, wet grape. A big, fat strawberry. She could find it in her hand and eat it.
Now she is having trouble taking something out of her own hand. She’ll try to pick up her own finger. I can see the gears turning, “No, that’s not it.” Sometimes she’ll try to pick up something that isn’t there, at a spot close to where the item is that I’ve placed in her hand. She’ll bring her fingers to her mouth and “taste” it, and say “mmm, delicious” but all she’s picked up is air.
Now I place the food against her index finger and watch her thumb move over to hold it in place. I sometimes have to tap it against her index finger before she’ll take it. I feel like an operating room nurse, slapping the surgical instruments into the doctor’s hand.
My job is to fill as many moments in Mom’s life as I can. We cuddle, and sing, I wash her hands and brush her teeth, I bring food to eat, we listen to music and play with the dog. We wind yarn, and I give her hand and foot messages. I tell her how much I love her, and we make moments together. I try to come every day that I’m not on the road teaching because the thought of her alone in her own head breaks my heart.
If it was a choice of “nothingness” or “happiness” that would be sad enough. But Mom seems to have random thoughts that frighten her. Perhaps they are dreams, or they are fleeting fragments of memories from long ago, or she has simply heard something one of the other residents or staff has said and misunderstood it. She has relived the death of her own parents many times, has truly believed someone was trying to hurt her or take something from her, and she is remorseful for something she has done “wrong.” It’s hard to know what triggers these emotions, but her sorrow, fear, and anger are real. And she acts on them.
That is the only explanation I have for her uncontrollable crying, cursing at the top of her lungs, or crashing her walker into people and furniture.
I am always looking for good moments to give her. The other day one of the other residents left her baby doll on the sofa in the common area and I sat Mom down there and asked if she wanted to hold the baby. She demurred. The last time I suggested it (several months ago) she quipped, “Why the H would I want to play with a GD DOLL!?” This time I think she thought it was real and she might do something wrong. I told her it was OK, maybe she could show me how to rock the baby. She picked up the life-sized doll but didn’t look like she knew what to do. I suggested burping the baby and she carefully placed it on her shoulder and patted its back. Like a pro. With a little more coaching she found the part of her brain that remembered how she had held and rocked and burped me some 50+ years ago. It was an amazing moment.
About that time I had to talk to one of the supervisors and left Mom with the doll. When I came back some 10 minutes later she was still holding it, talking to it, and tapping her hands in time to the music that was playing. I can’t tell you what joy that moment brought to me.
You have to find the moments when and where you can. And sometimes you have to look pretty hard.