I remember when we first really knew something was wrong with mom. It would be about 10 years ago and I was with my mom and dad for a vacation in Great Britain. My parents were both from there and since my dad’s retirement many years earlier they liked to take a return trip there each year. However, they were quite elderly by this point and managing the logistics of travel was becoming too difficult (ie. rental cars, hauling luggage). Especially as my mother’s mobility was becoming laboured – the result of bad hips and knees that went untreated too long. So I went along with them for a few annual trips to do the driving and heavy lifting.
On this particular trip, two of my daughters – teenagers at the time – also came along so they could get introduced to the “old country” by their grandparents. So, a nice multi-generational family trip.
Early in the trip we were staying in Exeter, where my mom grew up. On our first evening there we went out for dinner at a nice casual restaurant near our B&B. All in all, it was a pleasant evening until we got to the desert stage. Talk turned to the rest of the evening and my daughters mentioned maybe going off to explore the town in the evening. Suddenly their grandmother took on a bossy tone and advised that there was no way these young girls would be going out, that instead they would be heading to their room and getting ready for bed. While we all surprised by this outburst, the girls handled it pretty well and just sort of laughed it off. But this only annoyed their grandmother and she got into a snit, which put a damper on the evening and brought dinner to an abrupt close.
To make matters worse, my mother’s ill mood led her to refuse assistance from either of the girls as she left the restaurant and waited out front while I retrieved the car. She was unaware of, or misjudged, the step from the restaurant to the side-walk (aka pavement in the UK), and fell. Fortunately, the only injury was to her pride.
What would account for this strange behaviour? Well, a little history may help to explain. My mother had babysat the kids often when they were young and their parents were at work. Could it be that she was seeing them as the little girls they used to be and not as the young women they now were? This is the thing with Alzheimer’s – it is short-term memory that goes, not long-term. So while she may have been confused about exactly who these young women were, she likely remembered their names and voices and placed them with the only things her long-term memory was able to associate.
The next day, things did not improve much. From our repeated talk and the visits to her old sites, she knew she was in Exeter. As we were leaving town, she began to tell me that I was going the wrong way (inspite of my GPS instructions) and that if only I would go down this or that road we would get to our destination. I suppose that as the only Exeter resident in the car, she had some proprietary pride. But she hadn’t actually lived there for over 50 years. Things had changed and even if they hadn’t, her muddled brain wasn’t really able to make sense of the layout.
During the rest of the trip, we all realized we needed to treat her with kid gloves, avoiding triggers for more outbursts. My dear daughters deserve lots of credit for how well they handled their poor grandmother. They were very patient with her inspite of private complaints to me that they didn’t know how many more times they could pretend to look with interest at some cloud formation out the window that looked to mom like a mountain or perhaps a tree or a bird…
It was a tough place for my kids as this marked a major life-stage turn. Here was the former respected and protective guardian figure, now becoming the one who needed care and protection and humouring. It was no less of a turning point for me I suppose, but I was the adult somewhat used to the curveballs life throws at you.
You may wonder how mom’s condition could come as such a surprise to us. Well, in short, my father had covered for her. He was pretending to us that she was fine. As they had been away in Florida for the winter, we’d had little contact with her for the previous six months. Whether he was in conscious or unconscious denial I’m not sure. More on that in future posts.