How my grandmother's battle with Alzheimer's disease taught me to live
Nothing makes me break down in a movie theater quite like a scene featuring an elderly person with Alzheimer’s disease, especially when there’s no warning. I remember sobbing while watching Friends With Benefits after I learned that Justin Timberlake’s character had a father suffering from the disease.
It broke my heart, and I hadn’t seen it coming — just as I had no idea what to expect when, as a preteen, I was told about my own grandmother’s battle with dementia.
Growing up, I would spend every waking moment with my grandparents that I could. Nanny and Pop-Pop’s house was a sanctuary for me and my sister — a wonderland of cartoons, sugary cereal, and all the ice cream you could ever dream of eating.
We didn’t want for anything. Looking back, we were probably spoiled, but they loved us fiercely and we loved them unconditionally in return.
My grandmother and I had a lot in common. We both loved watching The Price is Right (Plinko was our favorite game), guessing along to Wheel of Fortune, and reading. We were best friends. She encouraged me to do well in school, praised me when I received good grades, and saved me from more than one spanking as a child from my mother — her daughter (thank you, Nanny!). In her eyes, I could do no wrong.
But then things started to change. It was gradual at first: forgetting a grocery item here, lapsing on a name or two there. In fact, I don’t remember a glaring moment when I could say with confidence that I knew something wasn’t right with my grandmother.
If anything, I thought the gaps in her memory were just a regular sign of old age. But I soon learned the situation was much more serious.
I don’t recall exactly when my mom informed me and my sister of our grandmother’s disease. It’s quite possible that I blocked that event from my memory. I wasn’t as good at verbally expressing my thoughts back then, so it’s entirely feasible that I retreated to my journal and simply wrote “something’s wrong with Nanny.”
As a 12-year-old, I didn’t fully grasp what it meant to have Alzheimer’s, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the emotional pain it would cause — the hurt and loss that my family would endure. Imagine physically seeing the person you know and love, but knowing that, mentally, they’re not actually there. It’s like the shell of a person.
How could this strong, beautiful woman who helped raise me, suddenly be so fragile and disoriented? The contrast was jarring to me and, as a result, I withdrew from my grandmother.
While my entire family was busy caring for my grandmother and her condition, I hung back in the shadows, sad and afraid.
I remember when I went to my grandparents’ house after school one day, and my grandmother chastised me for being late. I wasn’t actually late (my grandfather had picked me and my sister up from school at the usual time while our parents were at work) — but, for some reason, my grandmother had traveled back in time. She was convinced that I was my mother, and I had apparently come home late from school one day in the ‘70s. And boy, did my grandmother let me have it! Granted, my mother and I do favor one another, and my family had a good laugh about it afterward.
But it was funny in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of way. Deep down, that moment broke me. I finally started to understand the gravity of my grandmother’s disease.
My best friend, my game show buddy, and my partner-in-crime no longer recognized me. I was heartbroken.
The Christmas before she died, I remember peering into the living room. My grandmother was lying down on the sofa.
Too timid to actually walk in and sit with her, I called out to her from the hallway. She asked if I was there, and I said yes. Then she told me I was beautiful.
It was the last conversation we would ever have. On January 6th, 2000, my Nanny passed away.
I was inconsolable.
For a long time, I felt guilty about how I’d dealt with my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. I was ashamed of my behavior, and I wished I could go back in time to do things differently. But over time, I learned to forgive myself.
My grandmother taught me a lot during her life, but perhaps she taught me the biggest, most important lesson in her death. After she died, I made a vow to tell my family members that I love them, letting them know how much they mean to me while they’re still alive. I give them “flowers for the soul,” as I called them in a poem I wrote for my high school’s literary magazine my freshman year.
I wear my grandmother’s wedding band every day. I know she’s with me, guiding my decisions. Because of her, I don’t take my family or friends for granted. Because of her, I’ve learned to treasure every moment — sad, happy, carefree, or painful. You don’t get a second chance at life. Don’t wait until it’s too late.