We’ve all had that moment when we forget that word in mid-sentence or we forget where we placed an item (our keys, our phone). In that fleeting moment we have that fear which hits us as with an exclamation point: “Am I losing my memory?” It’s concerning at least and frightening at best. If we are past 30 years old and are honest with ourselves, we all have had this moment. We see a close relative, maybe our Aunt Gert or Uncle Henry, exhibiting signs of memory loss. We see a commercial touting the new drug which will slow the progression of Alzheimer's. This is when we say “Please, please God, don’t let this be me”. We push down that fear and panic. We relegate it to a hidden compartment inside of ourselves each time these feelings arise.
I’ve recently been dealing with a parent who is suffering from memory loss. She has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. My brother and I are trying to be there for my mother, emotionally and physically. We listen and nod at pauses in her speech as she searches for that lost word. We want and need her to see that she is okay. The memory loss is wearing her down, mentally, spiritually and physically. We stop by her apartment to check on her; to make her a meal; to take out her trash. We assure her that we’ll always be there as we stuff down our concerns. These concerns come to us late at night as we lie in bed hoping for a few hours of sleep so that we may escape our present day reality. Throughout the day we do those things which need to be done. We put on a brave face even though, internally, our emotions move from deep sadness to anger to frustration. We tell ourselves that we are doing what needs to be done, yet continue to worry that it may not be enough. There is no pill, no amount of alcohol which can dull the pain or remove us from this new reality.
The most difficult, heart wrenching thing about it is to hear your parent acknowledge the fact that he or she is aware that they are losing their memory. They say they know friends and family are worried. Truth be told they are concerned as well.
Today was Easter Sunday. We gathered at Mom's as we do every Easter. We tried to make things normal and light hearted. We tried to avoid looks of concern as our mother would pause as she was talking or relaying a story.
After the meal, after the clean-up and time spent with Mom, we said our “I love you’s.” We said our goodbyes. A few hours after returning home I felt compelled to return to my mother’s apartment. She said that she was happy to see me. I wondered if she realized that I had been with her just two hours before. I wanted to let her know that I was there for her, to listen or to just spend time.
My mother said today that she realizes her memory is failing. She said that she did not want to be a burden to her family. Isn’t that the thing we all fear most? Losing our memory or becoming physically and/or psychologically dependent on our family?
I remember when my grandfather (my mother’s father) began suffering from memory loss. He had undergone a thorough work up at a hospital renowned for diagnosing memory impairments in Omaha, Nebraska. The tests were inconclusive yet the doctors said that they suspected Alzheimer’s dementia. Back then there were no medications to slow or prevent further memory loss like there are today. My grandfather voiced his concerns regarding his memory loss as he struggled against the fading away of his memory.
The first signs of his deteriorating memory involved difficulties in doing his activities of daily living. Then there was the driving. He would get lost when navigating through Bedford, Iowa. This was a small Iowa town in which he had grown up and had lived for 70 years.
I remember the phone call from my grandfather late one night after my grandmother placed him in a nursing home. My grandfather said that he knew he was becoming forgetful. He said he feared he was losing his mind. My grandfather was from hardy stock. He was a tall, strong man whose ancestors hailed from the Netherlands. He was an Iowa farmer who was also an intellectual. He was a person who, although always present, lived a life of the mind. Typically, he would rise at 5 in the morning to read the Des Moines Register or the New York Times before he would begin his chores. Would he have been born at a different time in different circumstances I am sure he would have become an attorney. He loved the law and the significance it played in our lives.
Tomorrow my brother and I are taking my mother to a geriatric specialist. We are hoping that he will provide us answers to my mother’s failing health and memory loss. We want to give our mother hope that things can get better. We hope that for her sake (and ours) we will get those answers. We pray fervently that she is not a victim of the big forget.