“I don’t know that guy over there,” she says with a curious smile.
The tiny, seemingly good-natured Elder motions to another Elder seated at the end of the lunch table.
We remind her of who he is – as some family members shift in their chairs. My aunties, also seated around the table, politely do their best to keep the rest of the conversation going. They’ve all seen it before.
“That’s Larry, Mom. He’s your brother,” my sister Phyllis says. She offers a brief nod of acknowledgement. Less than a minute later, the scene repeats itself.
“I don’t know that guy over there,” she points even louder.
She’ll repeat herself nearly a dozen times that afternoon.
Some time later, our mom is visibly agitated as we take her back to her room. Fortunately, she was pleasant for much of the lunch organized by Phyllis. But clearly she’s tired and out of her comfort zone.
Her routine has been changed.
She’s quite abrupt to her daughter who she sees as a figure of authority. She murmurs abrupt commands along the way.
“Turn on my TV,” she says, slightly under her breath.
We take her to back to her room and comply. But TVO is only showing cartoons. Really, it doesn’t matter what’s on because she doesn’t watch television. It’s all background noise for her comfort.
We tell her we have to go now, which seems to set her off even further.
“Where am I going to sit? Where are you taking me?”
As usual, she like to walk us out to the central hallway where she sits with her fellow residents at Cassellholme Home for the Aged.
We sit her down in an empty chair nearby her friends. She doesn’t know their names. But she doesn’t know our names, for that matter.
“Okay, Mom. We’ll see you again soon.”
“Turn on my TV, I said,” she says gruffly, no longer under her breath.
“We left your TV on, Mom. You’ll see when you go back to your room,” says Phyllis. She hugs Momma as we head for the elevator.
“TO HELL WITH YOU,” is her departing job.
We smile, reflective, that her sisters and her brother aren’t here to see this part of their brown-bag luncheon.
I’m not writing this to embarrass my family, or hurt my Momma’s dignity. I’m writing to open up a dialogue about the realities of dementia.
Dementia is a brain disorder that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia.
My mom, Dwyla, began experiencing symptoms of dementia about ten years ago while she was still living at home. It began with gradual, but noticeable memory loss. She adopted a number of complex rituals, involving the layering of tissue paper, organizing and obsessing with garbage and washing single items of laundry several times a day. She began talking to herself. Soon after, complicated further by several transient ischemic attacks (TIAs or “mini-stroke”), she was unable to care for herself including going to the toilet or taking a shower. She wasn’t able to make herself a ham sandwich or open a can of soup.
One terrifying incident involved her rituals around garbage. She got it in her head one day to take her bag of trash and throw it in the bush behind the house. She somehow made her way further and further back into the bush. Yes, she’s an Anishinaabe woman. But she’s certainly not the trail-seeking, hunting, trapping and scouting type Indian. She wandered around for some time in the bush, alone and scared. Luckily, she followed those voices out of the bush, only a few hundred feet down the Garden Village Road.
Most of her brothers and sisters and many of our cousins certainly were not aware that this was all going on. We kept it a private matter for so long, respecting her privacy and attempting to preserve her dignity. Many in our extended family probably wondered why she was in an old-age home. Some may have even second guessed our decision to place her there. After all, she was always the woman who took care of others. Why couldn’t we take care of her ourselves? My brother Dennis Jr., with the support of Phyllis and a host of personal care nurses did so for a few years. But the sad reality is that it was just not possible. Our Momma needed professional care.
I hope that this blog might raise some awareness about dementia and how it impacts our Elders, their families and Loved ones. Dementia not only inflicts Elders, but young Elders too. If you start to see these types of symptoms and behaviours, seek diagnosis, medical treatment and advice from health care professionals.
In our case, there was not much that doctors can do. Still, we are eternally grateful for the 24-hour care she gets at Cassellholme. We’re thankful to the many personal support workers, nurses and doctors who make life comfortable for Momma. They all call her by her name, offer her a smile, kindness and good care.
We’re also happy to see that Momma is quietly entertained by her many nameless friends who look out for her. She also genuinely enjoys her twice-a-week manicures.
Not everyday is filled with hostility or disruptive behaviours. She may not know our names, but she still lights-up when she sees us arrive for our regular visits. Somehow she know who we are. Those days are filled with her polite smile and genuine pride when she introduces us around the facility.
“This is my Boy,” Momma says to each and every staff member, resident and passer-byer.