I grew up across the road from my grandparents. My grandpa, who died when I was seven, was a dairy farmer, so he was around during the day. He was my babysitter when my mom had somewhere to go. My grandma was a high school English teacher. After my grandpa died, I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Susie. She was alone a lot when my aunts went away to college, and I would go spend the night there on weekends, as well as going over for afternoon tea parties. She read me books like Black Beauty, and she took me to the library even when I took a suitcase to take all my books home. My mom was too embarrassed by my suitcase to take me.
My grandma has continued to be a big part of my life. When I got married and moved away, she told me many times how much she missed me, even though I was only living less than ten miles away. When my boys were younger, she would come over and play with them. All of her great-grandchildren (currently six, with one more on the way) love to play with Grandma Susie.
She was diagnosed with dementia about two years ago, maybe Alzheimer’s, maybe not. The doctors can’t seem to decide. At first, we weren’t sure how much of her forgetting was the dementia, and how much was her personality. She has always had a lot of what people call blonde moments, although she is a brunette. When I was growing up, her radio had a circular melted pattern from her leaving it on a stove burner she had turned on. Gradually, there have been more and more things that she can’t remember. Sometimes these moments are comical, sometimes they are sad. Often they are both. There are times that she laughs about something that she can’t remember, and times that it brings her to tears of frustration with the things she knows she should know.
It is hard to explain to my kids. My oldest gets frustrated when he has to tell her how many planets there are repeatedly over the course of the hour or two we are there. She has made a valiant effort to learn the things that are important to my kids and nephews. She has a sheet of Thomas the Tank Engine trains that she looks at to keep up with all the names. She had my mom buy her a planet book so she could study them.
What I miss the most is being able to talk to my grandma about what is going on in my life. She has always been a source of good advice and support for me. Now, it is hard for her to keep track of what has been said long enough to have a real conversation.
I have noticed lately that my daughter is becoming more of her own person. She is now just over a year old. She is more independent. She is more aware of how we do things. She is learning to put things away a little bit, when she isn’t making a huge mess. She knows our routines. It is amazing to watch how someone so young can already be learning so much. When I watch her with my grandma lately, it makes me sad seeing them together, both because my kids will never remember my grandma as she was, and because I can see the opposite process happening to my grandma. My aunt makes her lists of when to eat and what she has to eat. People dispense her medications and bring her mail. She is less able to participate in group conversations. Last week we had a book club meeting with friends and family like we do every summer, but this year my grandma did not participate other than describing her book. In the past, she was part of the discussion around the books everyone else read.
Although that may change eventually, at this point my grandma is able to continue living in her own home. My aunts and siblings, along with my great-aunt and some cousins all contribute to keeping things running as smoothly as possible for her, especially since any stress makes her memory and agitation worse. I hope to be able to accept whatever comes my way as I grow older myself with as much grace and humor as my grandmother has. As she tells me a lot lately “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most”.
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