A Bitter Taste: Losing Grandma in the Fight Against Dementia
I make cookies when I go home for the holidays. I started doing it 3-4 years ago after I picked up a copy of America’s Test Kitchen’s “Best-Ever Christmas Cookies.” I guess I could say that it’s sort of become a new tradition.
Chocolate chip, lemon, and red velvet are the primary flavors in rotation. It takes hours, of course, to make them all from scratch. As the cookie assembly line goes from the oven, to the counter, and finally to the plate, I count them to make sure that I have about 3 dozen of each flavor. Not all the cookies will stay, though. I go to my Mom’s cabinet, and I take out a plastic container. I divide the pile of cookies, putting some in the container. “Which ones should I give Grandma?” I ask Mom. My Grandma has a sweet tooth, so it’s only right that I bring her cookies. Mom tells me the softer ones.
Grandma lives about 45 minutes away. When you first enter her home, you’ll walk through a lobby area to get to the main desk. After adding your name to the log book, you’ll walk through an extended hallway, passing the courtyard area and a cafeteria, where, depending on the day, you might see a group of residents watching a movie, doing a sing-a-long, or playing some other game. There is an elevator at the end of the hallway, off to the right. It’s only a two-floor building, yet you feel like you have gone past 4 floors by the time the elevator stops on the second floor. After exiting the elevator, you’ll walk to the right to go into another cafeteria area. Residents are sitting around in wheelchairs. Some are having conversation. Some are mumbling incoherent words. Some are simply sitting there, staring blankly ahead.
“Hey Ma,” says my Mom when we find my Grandmother.
“Hi Grandma!” I say.
Some days she’ll look in our direction. Other days she stares, not noticing us.
I see my Grandma once or twice a year. Each time her frame gets smaller, frailer. She’s always wearing loose clothing. Her body ticks. She grinds her teeth. She makes incoherent sounds. But if there is music playing, you’ll hear her belt out a note as she tries to sing along. When we visit, we’ll play her Al Green. Or the Temptations. Or Steve Wonder. I’d like to think that she recognizes the music, and something about it reminds her of a moment in her life.
I take a cookie out of the container. I break off a tiny piece and slowly feed it to her. As she accepts the piece the cookie, partially chewing it, she starts humming. “Is it good Grandma?” I ask her. “Yeeesssss,” she replies, slowly extending on the ‘es’.
Today, my Grandma turns 80, but she was diagnosed with dementia in her early-60s. The family could sense that something was off before the official diagnosis. It wasn’t just that she forgot things. It was when she drove across town from her apartment in the middle of the night to our house, but she couldn’t remember how she got there. Or when she put a bag full of trash in the oven. It was when she panicked because she couldn’t understand why she was having trouble doing things she would and could normally do for herself.
In the earlier years, Grandma could still walk. You could still have a conversation with her. We could take her out of her nursing home for lunch, for family gathering, or to go to the beach. But then there were days she used to call my Mom from the nursing home, cursing at her that she was ready to leave work and someone needed to come pick her up.
Slowly, it all changed.
There was no more taking her out for a couple of hours. She stopped walking. Two-way conversations with her became a thing of the past. As the years have gone on, she’s missed graduations, birthdays, interacting with her new great-grandchildren, family reunion, and, most recently, my wedding. I can’t call her on the phone when I’m having a bad day and want to hear her voice. I can tell her about what’s new in my life, but she won’t interact with me. She won’t engage with me. She sits in her wheelchair, her body ticking, and at times, goes back and forth between staying awake and falling asleep. I can’t nurture and spoil her just like she did for me when I was growing up. All I can do now is, whenever I go to see her, talk to her and hold her hand, hoping that she can feel my spirit. When I am there, holding her hand, she’ll grip it. It gives me some hope that she can sense that I’m with her.
I enjoy feeding my family. I take pride in it. But I won’t ever get the chance to share that with my Grandma. I can’t go home and cook a meal for her, hoping that she’ll enjoy it. All that I’m left with is knowing that she was able to – I hope – enjoy the love I gave her with those cookies. I took her humming as confirmation that she did.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the US. Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women and Blacks are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than Whites. This is the third year that my family and I will participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. In honor of my Grandmother, I’m helping to raise money to support advancing research, providing care and support to caregivers and affected families, and to reduce the risk of dementia through promotion of brain health. If you are interested in donating, no matter if it’s $1, $10, or $100, please click here. Thank you for your support.