Learning How to Find Grace in Dementia

A report from the trenches.

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The doctor is young. Considerably younger than me. Maybe mid-thirties to my mid-forties.

He’s kind to my parents-in-law in the same way that a pediatrician would be kind to a frightened three-year-old. He speaks slowly and brightly and in short sentences. Tells them that today is only about answering questions. His and theirs and ours — my husband’s and mine.

We’re all huddled together in a standard-issue exam room. A nurse had to bring in extra chairs, because Carole and George can’t do this alone, or without each other. My husband, their only son, can’t do it without me.

My mother-in-law only has one question. Her mind works in loops lately — four or five stories she repeats and repeats and repeats. In the doctor’s office, she asks her one question over and over and over. Every two or three minutes until we leave.

And then she repeats the answer the whole drive home, like she’s trying to cement it in her faltering brain.

“Are you going to make me put him away?” She asks. “I’ve had him around a long time. I don’t want to put him away.”

“Of course not,” the doctor says.

“Of course not,” my husband says.

“Of course not,” I say.

It doesn’t matter how many times any of us say it. Or that there isn’t any ‘away’ that they can afford anyway. It’s not like sending George to live in a nice, clean facility where he’ll have his own room and they’ll accommodate his rather appalling dietary peccadillos is an option.

They live with us, because they can’t care for themselves safely anymore, but also because their only retirement plan was social security and that won’t rent an apartment. I spend a lot of energy worrying about what will happen if they ever get to the point where they aren’t safe at home.

I have a hard time imaging what they would have done, if they hadn’t had their son. If they were alone and the ground shifted under them as much as it has the last couple of years.

We’re at the doctor’s office because my father-in-law stepped out of a movie theater to use the bathroom two weeks ago and got lost. We finally found him sitting alone and confused in the wrong theater.

He didn’t remember that we were at the movies with him. He fell, twice, because he didn’t remember that movie theaters have steps.

The doctor gives him a verbal memory test that involves a set of questions.

What year is it, George? 1955.

What state are you in? Pennsylvania. (We live in Nevada — he’s lived in Nevada since the 1980s.)

What county are you in? No answer — he seems unsure about what a county is.

What season is it? Oh, well, I’m not sure…but it must be up there.

What day is it? It must be Wednesday. (It was Monday.)

What’s the date? February 2. (That’s his birthday. The date was April 23.)

I’m going to give you three words. Apple. Table. Penny. Can you repeat them back? Apple Pen Tenny.

Apple. Table. Penny. Can you repeat them back? Apple. Table. Penny.

Can you spell World backward? W-O-R-L-D.

Good, can you spell it backward? L-O-R-D-W.

Can you tell me what those three words were? I know one was world.

His wife leans over and whispers in my ear, Well, that’s a silly test. I don’t even remember them.

The doctor ends the appointment by telling George he can’t drive anymore. He can’t cook — not that he ever did. He can’t be alone, at all. Not to go to the bathroom at the movies. Definitely not to play poker at the Peppermill.

Are you going to make me put him away? I’ve had him a long time. I don’t want to put him away.

They’re two sides of a ladder, propping each other up. When one goes down the other slips. When she was sick two years ago — sick enough to require an extended hospitalization, followed by several weeks in a nursing home — he didn’t know how to make his own coffee or run the washing machine.

He was fine, until he ran out of the last pot of coffee she made. And then he fell apart.

I always thought that she’d mellow and turn sweeter as she aged, and that he’d get meaner. He’s got this big booming voice and he’s used to being catered to. He’s used to his little family — his wife and son — revolving around him.

But it’s the oppsite. She can’t cope with how much he sleeps lately. With how little company he is to her. She picks at him until he retreats the only way he can — into sleep. And he’s slipped into himself so much, he’s hardly recognizable. She loses her temper so easily, for no discernible reason. Even she doesn’t know why she’s upset.

She cries so much, it scares my daughter. She’s taking Zoloft, but it’s not really helping.

In the backseat of my car last night, on the way to my daughter’s soccer game, he closed his eyes and she asked him every half-mile or so if he wanted to just stay in the car and sleep during the game. She cried. He just looked confused.

She’s sitting between George and Ruby, who is thirteen. She asks one and then the other, back and forth like a ping pong ball, if they’re okay.

You’re quiet. Are you okay? You’re just so quiet. Are you sure you’re okay? Are you tired? Are you okay? It’s just that you’re so quiet. Are you worried about the game? Oh, you know what, George? You can just stay in the car and sleep.

Until Ruby finally says, Grandma! I’m fine.

Until George finally says, I’m going to watch the game.

Then Carole tears up and says, Fine, I won’t ask again. I won’t talk at all anymore.

Only she does. Of course. Another of her loops. One that I wish I could turn off. You know, Shaunta, Ruby is such a good athlete.

Here it comes. I can’t stop it. I can’t make her not be a 74-year-old woman with dementia and depression. I can’t change her mind-loops anymore than I could make my autistic son not behave like he has autism in order to make his teachers happy.

I’ve told her this is inappropriate. My husband has told her. She doesn’t remember being told. She doesn’t know, on her own, that this particular mind loop is not okay. If she did, we wouldn’t have already had this conversation three times today.

In public, I would be more aggressive in an effort to redirect her, but here in the car, I just nod a little and wait for it.

I remind myself that someday I might need the level of grace Carole does, and I hope my kids will give it to me. I hope that’s what Ruby takes from this, and not some horrific form of body dysphoria.

I remind myself to talk to Ruby, again, and try to figure out some way to mitigate the message she’s about to get. Because while I’m negotiating rush hour traffic, in a packed-full car, I can’t stop it.

That’s why she has such a pretty figure on her. She has such beautiful legs.

She points out my daughter’s legs and the prettiness of her figure to anyone who stands still long enough to hear it. Strangers. Strange men. I have slammed the door on the UPS man, to keep my mother-in-law from discussing my barely-teenaged daughter’s body with him. I’ve changed the subject, abruptly, in check out lines and in doctor’s offices and I’m quite sure I’ll have to do it again during today’s game. At least once.

I see Ruby in the rearview mirror, shoving her ear buds into her ears.

Are you okay? You’re awful quiet.

I’m fine, Grandma.

Fine. I just won’t say anything else until we get there then.

I’m just thinking about my game.

You know, you’re such a good athlete. That’s why you have such a pretty figure on you. George, doesn’t she have the prettiest legs.

Living in this house is like living in the middle of a PBS special about the ravages of aging. How inertia and a thirty-year, two-pack-a-day habit eats holes into your brain through which things like knowing how to find your way to the bathroom and back by yourself, or remembering not to tell the soccer dad sitting next to you about how pretty your granddaughter’s figure is, get sucked up and out. And how relying on Social Security as your only retirement plan will land you in your kid’s basement apartment.

It’s like Scared Straight: Entering-Middle-Age Edition. And the only way to get through it is to look for the grace to be patient. And to make health and financial choices for myself while I’m still young enough to make them.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes, is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming middle-grade novel The Astonishing Maybe and is the original Ninja Writer.

Learn. Write. Repeat. Visit me at ninjawriters.org. Reach me at shauntagrimes@gmail.com. (My posts may contain affiliate links!)

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