My grandmother moved into supported accommodation in her mid 80s. She had Alzheimers Disease and needed help to shower, cook, clean, be safe. She had four sons, including my own father who had moved continent as a young adult. The remaining three sons designed a roster of visitors, so that my grandmother had company during the week and extra help not provided by paid staff.
As a child, I loved receiving postcards, birthday cards and Christmas parcels from my grandmother. It was wonderful to be thought about by my distant ‘Oma’, and I strived to write to her as often as I received her mail. I felt close to her, and treasured the infrequent times we were actually together. Relatives told me that I looked and acted like her. Their comments delighted me.
I was 25, the last time I saw her. I visited her with my uncle and aunt. My grandmother warmly welcomed me into her home, but it was soon clear that she had forgotten who I was. My uncle attempted to remind her many times during my visit, yet she was unable to recall my identity. I sat with her, drinking Advocaat (her favorite) , and going through her box of old photos. Many times she came across photos of me as a child, quickly and correctly pointing me out in the photograph. She told and retold stories from her own childhood. Whenever she looked out the window, she called out to my father anticipating a visit from him. Although he had not visited in the last decade, he remained heavily in her thoughts. Before we left, my uncle handed me a shoebox full of postcards and birthday cards, written but not sent, to my siblings and I. My grandmother had prepared herself for the time her memory would fail her. Unfortunately her ability to plan and complete actions at the right time, like taking cards to the postbox, had diminished with her memory.
I contacted my father after this visit. He subsequently phoned his mother, who told him that a lovely woman had come to visit. She couldn’t recall who it was.
Many years have passed since this visit took place. I still feel some sadness at losing my grandmother to dementia. My experience is common in spouses and family members of people with dementia. Health professionals often identify individuals who are in a state of grieving – while their relative is still alive. It is an extremely difficult phase. Family members are tired from the practical tasks involved in caring for their relative. They are frustrated and annoyed at having to repeat answers and at listening to repeated questions. But perhaps the heaviest blow is that after a lifetime of shared struggles, joys and challenges, they are not constantly recognized by their loved one. The sad and lengthy experience of loving and caring for someone with dementia, is an experience that family members endure alone.
Grandmother-grandchild relationships are simple. Grandmas are short on criticism and long on love. ~Author Unknown
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