How to Find Humor When Dealing With Alzheimers
A couple of years ago, I was hanging out with my mother in her bedroom when she held up a small waste basket and started shaking it at me.
"This is money!" she exclaims.
"How much money is it worth?" I teased her. "Can I have some?"
We both started giggling. Only it wasn't that funny. Little did I know that parts of my mom's speech were slipping away, along with her memory. I had been visiting my parents for the last several years on a monthly basis, cooking and doing light caregiving. However, when my father became critically ill with late-onset Parkinson's disease, my brother and I had to suddenly become more hands-on. My mother, in particular, started treating my father weirdly. Instead of being concerned, all of a sudden she acted as if him getting ill was his own fault. She was in deep denial and didn't understand that he had a chronic illness.
"Sick people don't eat," she observed, ignoring the fact that, although Dad was eating, he was continuing to lose weight.
Life finally hit the fan on Thanksgiving of that year. My mom's 80-year-old cousin offered to come cook the family dinner. She brought her 45-year-old son, along with his pet chihuahua, Cuddie, a therapy dog.
Everything was going well at first - in the traditional holiday fashion, the women did the food prep and the men watched sports on television. Then Mom started asking me in hushed tones, "Who is that woman? And what is that little boy and dog doing here?" It was the first time we realized that she was really slipping. Throughout the day she began calling me her sister swapping the names of her husband of 53 years and her son, my brother.
Still, she was helping out in the kitchen, enjoying her "stories" on daytime television with the girls. She knew who she was and where she lived. During the holiday dinner, she said, out of the blue, "Something is wrong in my house!" Then she would hold her hands over ears, elbows on the table, as if trying to keep her brains inside her head. After dinner, we'd play music and she'd do a little jig or jut out a hip, cracking everyone up. Always my Dad's dance partner, it was the first time I'd seen her dance alone and she seemed to enjoy the freedom of it.
A month later on Christmas Day, Mom began to exhibit severe behavioral aggression, throwing furniture and screaming constantly. I called her doctor for help but he wasn't available. An on-call physician prescribed an antidepressant and after two pills she passed out. Afraid we had overdosed her, we called 911. An ambulance arrived and several paramedics crowded into the house.
My 81-year-old mother woke up briefly, looked up at one of them, a big strong handsome guy and said, "I know you, you're cute." Flirting!
The paramedics transferred her to the ER where she was diagnosed with vascular dementia, similar to mid-stage, late onset Alzheimers. A couple of hours later she was back to herself, evaluated and medicated by a young ER doctor who seemed excited to have a case outside of his wheelhouse, consulting other physicians in order to ensure my mother was given the proper protocol.
We returned home, postponing Christmas until the next day and had a soothing, lovely, drama-less holiday, opening what were to be my Dad's last presents to and from us. My brother and I began holistic therapies with my mother moving her into the guest bedroom so my Dad could rest, playing soothing music with the lights turned down low. When she had her next calm, coherent moment, she picked up another waste basket and pointed to it, pulling out trash.
"Funny food!" she exclaimed.
"You're not going to eat that are you?" I asked.
She threw back her head and cackled.
Six weeks later my Dad went into intensive care. When he passed away after two weeks on life support, she was too distraught to attend his funeral. She began to wail and didn't stop for another year.