Friday, January 5, 2007

Live long and prosper!

I live in fear of Alzheimer's disease. My maternal grandmother suffered from the mind-robbing disease, and it was terrifying. Grandma was a poet. She wove wonderful rhyming tales about her world - her children, the world around her, her home - and shared them with family and friends. She loved to read and do crosswords. She crocheted, fast and fluffy, making a lifetime's worth of afghans and blankets. She worked outside the home for years for Gold Bell - remember the retailers who gave out little stamps that you collected in books and redeemed for merchandise?

Grandma's descent into senility was rapid and unrelenting. She left gas burners on, gave away photos and other belongings, and wandered off from her woodland home. She forgot the youngest grandchildren first - I guess because they were the newest and had not been in her memory for long.

When Gramps was diagnosed with cancer, he had to care for both of them, so he sold their belongings and moved with her into a tiny mobile home closer to town. It was sad to hear her offer pictures of the grandkids to anyone who would listen, "because we don't have room in the new place." Eventually, Gramps had to place Grandma in a skilled nursing facility and moved to an assisted living facility. He felt guilty, but it was all he could do to wage his own battle with cancer.

When Gramps died, my mother tried to tell Grandma about his passing. When Mom said, "Mom, Daddy died," Grandma thought her own father had passed. She was inconsolable. When my mother realized the misunderstanding, she tried to correct the error by using Gramps' given name, but it was too late to reason with Grandma.

At the skilled nursing facility, most of Grandma's handmade afghans disappeared, as well as a lot of her personal things. I visited with my little boy, but the visits scared him. Grandma would ask a question, then repeat it twice, each time at a higher decibel, until she was shrieking. She was frightened most of the time - frightened and lonely, because by then we were all strangers to her.

Her children signed a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, but when Grandma's heart gave out, the DNR was ignored the first time. I am not ashamed to say that we felt relief for her when she finally passed away.

A few years after she died, her children had Grandma's poems printed and bound for the grandkids. It was a way for her to live on like she used to be - sharp as a tack, witty, clever, funny. If I can do so without choking, I will pull out that book and print one or two of the poems in this space later.

Now, whenever my brain is full and I forget a word or something simple, I worry that it is Alzheimer's disease, rearing its ugly head again. I know my mom gets the same way. The "experts" say you can keep Alzheimer's at bay by keeping your mind sharp - say, by reading, doing crosswords, writing poetry, and doing Grandma did. So I read voraciously, do every Su Doku and crossword I can lay hands on, take classes, get degrees, and worry. Will the mental gymnastics be enough to keep control of my mind and memories? I wish I knew.

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