In the summer of 2013 I decided to take an apartment with my mother because I had noticed that she was forgetting simple things like where she put her cheque book, or whether she’d paid the cable bill. I wanted to spend some time with her so I could observe her behaviour and decide if she was able to live alone or if she needed assistance.
I soon realized that her taking extra long to get dressed was really because she couldn’t decide what to wear. I started to understand that the reason she took so long to get ready for bed going back and forth from her bedroom to the bathroom was because she had forgotten that she’d already brushed her teeth. It wasn’t long before I was aware that there wasn’t much she remembered. She didn’t even know we were living together in the apartment and would say things like, “I’m sorry I didn’t know you were staying for dinner and didn’t get out to the grocery store today” (this was months after I didn’t let her go out on her own).
One afternoon she asked me, “What ever happened to your brother?” Now my brother, her son, had just recently visited so I didn’t comprehend her meaning so I asked, “What do you mean?” She replied, “Your brother Mike, where is he?” My brother’s name is Steve, so I was really confused. Not thinking, I asked, “Who am I?” She quickly replied, “Martha”. I’ve never heard of a Martha. Not knowing what to do, I got up and left the room for a few minutes. When I returned, I looked her in the eyes and asked, “Mom, who am I?” She said, “You’re Linda.” (Whew!) I explained, “A few minutes ago you called me Martha. Who is she?” She thought for a minute and replied, “Well, I was thinking of my cousin Martha. I must have thought you were her. I wonder what ever happened to her brother.” This was my first insight into a dementia mind. She wasn’t just thinking about the past, it was as though she was living it at that moment.
Those inflicted with Alzheimer’s disease seem to travel back in time in their minds – doctors told me typically to a happy time. So the best way to have a conversation with them is to figure out where their mind is. Whenever Mom said something strange, I spoke to her as though she was hypnotized and I would ask questions like, “where are you?” and “who are you with?” She would answer and we’d have lovely conversations apparently in corn fields, at the harbour, even in the school yard. This went on for months. Sometimes it was a puzzle and other times it was like she was writing the novel of her life. I just followed along the mystery tour.
Although she’s been physically gone for two years now, the mother that I knew all my life vanished three years prior. As sad as it was to watch her brain diminish, those times were, in a way, magical.