By Ava Pennington
“I don’t want to go.” Nan pursed her lips in a pout.
“You’ll have a good time.”
“Do I have to?” She looked at me with pleading eyes.
I sighed. “Just try it.”
It was a classic “first day of school” conversation—an annual ritual for parents and children all over the world. Now it was our turn.
“But I don’t know anybody there.” She turned her head to stare out the window at the passing scenery.
The fear in her voice squeezed my heart. What could I say to reassure her? “You’ll meet new friends. You’ll have fun, I promise.”
“No, I won’t.” Unconvinced, she folded her arms across her chest and sulked for the rest of the ride.
Far from Typical
On this day, our “first day of school” conversation was anything but typical. Now I was the “parent,” and the “child” was my mother-in-law: 77 years old and the victim of Alzheimer’s disease. Nan lived with us, but the stress of never being able to leave her alone required some changes in our family routine. We struggled with a sense of failure in deciding to use outside care. But we also understood our need to make wise decisions, both for her well-being and for ours.
We were on our way to Nan’s first day at the Alzheimer’s Day Care Center. The Center was housed in a local church, which made me feel a little better. The program catered to patients suffering from the debilitating effects of progressive memory loss. It was designed to help stimulate the patient’s remaining cognitive skills while providing respite care to assist the family.
I found a parking space near the entrance and coaxed her out of the car. Nan cast an apprehensive look around. I braced myself for additional protests, but she silently walked beside me to the building. The program administrator greeted us at the door with a cheerful welcome and led us through a hallway toward the sound of lively voices.
A smiling “teacher” led Nan into a festive room and introduced her to the other participants. I started to follow them, but the administrator, whom I had met during the registration process a week earlier, stopped me. “Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”
Her canned reassurances were as ineffective as mine had been in the car with Nan.
“She didn’t want to come.” I directed my words to the administrator, but my eyes were trained on the closed door. “I think she might be afraid.”
“That’s to be expected on the first day. This involves a change for her, and change is especially difficult for patients with Alzheimer’s. But she’ll make friends, and we’ll engage her in activities that will interest her. She’ll have a good time, and in a few days we’ll be part of her new routine.”
I remained skeptical. “Maybe I should go in with her to make sure she’s OK—or at least stay for a while, just in case something goes wrong.”
“You can watch through the window for a few minutes if you want, but it would be better if she doesn’t see you. Why don’t you go enjoy your day? We’ll call you if we have any problems.” She gently ushered me away from the door, treating me as if I were the overprotective parent of a kindergarten child.
Enjoying the day was easier said than done. We appreciated the opportunity to run a few errands and have a quiet lunch together. But at the same time, my husband and I spent most of the day second-guessing ourselves. “Lord, did we do the right thing? Is she having a good time? Will she be angry with us? Is she cooperating with the staff?”
I Don’t Remember
Despite our worries, the six hours flew by and it was time to pick her up. Russ and I waited in the hall and watched in amazement as a smiling Nan stepped through the doorway.
“Bye!” she called out as she turned to wave to her newfound friends. “See you later.”
“Sounds like you had fun today,” I said.
“I did. I even met a woman who was in the army with me.”
“Really? What’s her name?”
“I don’t know. But we were in the army together. And there was someone else there who also said she was in the army with us, but I don’t remember the second lady—only the first one.”
I don’t know. Life had changed dramatically since this phrase became an integral part of her vocabulary.
I don’t remember. Memories are a strange thing. We can’t see them or touch them, yet who are we when they’re gone?
Some said she was no longer the person we knew. But we chose to view her from an eternal perspective. She had lost her memories, but we still retained ours. We remembered and honored those memories as we “parented” this precious woman who had once parented my husband.
Nan couldn’t remember the near past. She couldn’t recall what she last ate or when she ate it. She didn’t remember when or whether she had taken her medications. She had forgotten how to dress herself and could no longer care for her own needs. She didn’t know the current day, month, or year.
A Different World
But she loved to talk about what she could remember: home milk delivery, green stamps, and Lawrence Welk. Her 1951 DeSoto, neighbors who never locked their doors, and gas that cost 28 cents per gallon.
She was proud to have been a WAC in the U.S. Army, but she never considered herself to be a trailblazer or a feminist. Later, as a single mom, Nan worked full-time in the healthcare field. At the same time, she raised her son and cared for her disabled father. She was a member of the “sandwich generation” long before trend-watchers coined the term.
Nan’s memory of things long past was sharp and bright as she recalled details buried in the recesses of her mind. Listless conversations about present events transformed into vivid descriptions of experiences from long ago as if they had occurred only yesterday. Her animated stories opened a window into another time and place, and I followed her into a world very different from my own.
“Will I be coming here again?”
Her question brought me back to the present. “Do you want to?”
“Yes. My friends from the army will be there. I told them I would bring pictures with me.”
Our role reversal was complete. And the first day of school was a success.
Ava Pennington is a freelance writer in Stuart, Florida.
Developing a Care Plan for a Family Member with Alzheimer’s
Deciding how to care for a family member who has Alzheimer’s can be unspeakably stressful. The options of home-based care, day care, and full-time residential care can be complicated and emotional. Here are some guidelines to help keep the process as peaceful and healthy as possible for everyone involved.
As much as possible, work as a family. Cooperate and sacrifice as a team, but be willing to forgive others for what they can’t or won’t give.
Pray about decisions individually and as a family.
Work with the doctor to assess their condition and their needs.
Consider ways to honor your family member’s past and present wishes for their care, but be willing to contradict or add to their wishes if it becomes necessary for them or other family members.
Look at the limitations your family has in providing care from a physical, logistical, mental, emotional, and financial standpoint.
Now look at the strengths your family has in the same areas.
Investigate all the local options for care, even ones that don’t fit the situation right now.
Don’t let the decision become overly emotional, yet don’t forget that your love for your family member is what’s driving the discussion.
Don’t let guilt, resentment, or fear take control of the process. Seek God’s perspective and work through forgiveness that needs to take place in your family.
Be ready to adapt your plan as your family member’s needs change.
Don’t be too distracted by the needs of your loved one with Alzheimer’s to notice the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of other family members, especially those providing direct care.