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Introduction: Anne P. Hill practiced law for sixteen years before retiring to care for her mother after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Unforgettable Journey: Tips to Survive Your Parent’s Alzheimer’s Disease is a short, easily accessible book in which Hill gives tips and first-hand experience to the adult children of victim’s of Alzheimer’s disease that will not only help them cope with the daily trials and tribulations of assisting a parent with the illness, but will also give hope that there are some happy times ahead.
I’ve been the Thanksgiving cook in our family for nearly twenty years. Each year, Mom would bring something, often a salad or the pies.
One Thanksgiving, over ten years ago, when I asked her to bring the creamed onions, she brought a big casserole dish of onions and canned potatoes floating in half and half. She couldn’t figure out why the half and half hadn’t thickened, even though when I asked she said she had just added the half and half straight from the carton, without making it into a cream sauce. She said it should thicken on its own. I also was puzzled because I’d never known her to use canned potatoes.
At the time, this simply seemed strange. Now, I realize it was a clue.
For a couple years, she declined to drink wine because of her esophageal cancer, so I bought nonalcoholic wine for her. Then one year she forgot she had declined to drink wine and was offended that I served her nonalcoholic wine. One year she set the table backward, with the forks on the right instead of the left, something I had never known her to do. Then she stared at the place setting, knowing something wasn’t right but not sure what was wrong. Pretty soon I learned to save a simple task for Mom to do, because she would insist on helping but was unable to do anything to her own satisfaction, which made her mad.
A couple years before Mom went to live in memory care, her sister from Los Angeles, herself in the throes of early-stage Alzheimer’s, came for Thanksgiving. She and Mom both wanted to help. I gave my aunt the job of putting the carrot sticks in the relish dish, which she did in about two seconds, and then she looked at Mom and said, “See! I helped already!” That made Mom mad, because she hadn’t helped yet. They reminded me of two little girls, fighting in the kitchen—I think because they really were two little girls, fighting in the kitchen.
The year before we moved Mom to memory care, I asked her to put the cranberries on the table. She tried her hardest, but in the end she wasn’t able to because she couldn’t figure out how to move things already on the table to find a place for the cranberries.
The first two Thanksgivings that Mom was in memory care were extremely difficult. By the time of even her first Thanksgiving in memory care I was unable to take Mom out of the memory care residence. She wasn’t sure who I was, which made me nervous to take her places; and she didn’t understand how to sit in the car. The last few times she had been to my house, before she moved to memory care, she immediately had wanted to leave. Once she moved to memory care, she was very uncomfortable anyplace else.
A week or so before Thanksgiving Day, the residence where Mom lives stages a big Thanksgiving dinner for the families of residents.
They set up long tables in the living room and invite family members to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. While I know that some of the residents enjoy this meal, the addition of the long tables in the living room, the bustle to set the tables and serve the meal, and the dozens of extra people all create a calamity that makes Mom extremely agitated.
I attended the first Thanksgiving with misgivings, worried about what I was in for, for good reason. Mom had a lot of difficulty. I spent most of the dinner trying to calm her. The second was even worse: I had to move her halfway through the meal to a quieter room. I left both dinners feeling ill and totally anxious myself.
Before the third Thanksgiving dinner, I took time to reflect on the first two and tried to learn something from the bad experiences. I talked with the director, and we agreed that Mom did poorly during these festivities and that we would seat her and me in a separate room, with five of the other residents who also are made very anxious by changes in their surroundings and large groups of people.
I arrived early and took Mom into the separate dining room. She was already quite agitated because of the process of table set-up and general hubbub of the morning. As she began to become anxious and cry, I could feel myself beginning to get stressed. Beatrice (another resident who hates these events) began to spell out loud (which is her reaction to stress), and I felt the whole event beginning to slide toward a great abyss. Wait, I thought, I have more experience than this. I’ve learned more than this. I needed to focus on creating a reassuring atmosphere.
So I started to talk, very softly, to Mom. We talked about how everything was going to be OK because everything was under control. I told her that everyone who was there was her friend and they were going to serve her a delicious dinner that she would love. I talked about my cat and my children and her high school friends, interspersed with assurances that everything would be fine. Pretty soon the entire table began to calm down. Beatrice stopped spelling. I fed Mom all her dinner and a piece of pumpkin pie. Doreen made castles out of her mashed potatoes and stuffing, painted the tablecloth with the whipping cream from her pie, and had a total blast.
At the end of the meal, I stopped Beatrice from tipping herself out of her wheelchair in an attempt to pick up her final bite of pie, which she had dropped on the floor. “D-u-m-m,” spelled Beatrice, sure she could have reached the pie if I hadn’t stopped her. “No, she’s wonderful,” said Mom, clear as a bell. I got them each another piece of pumpkin pie.
And I was thankful.
No matter how bad things get, no matter how disabled your parent becomes, there will still be happy moments, often when you least expect them.
Anne P. Hill practiced law for sixteen years before retiring to care for her family. She volunteers at her sons’ school and with her church. She lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Portland, Oregon. Unforgettable Journey is available for purchase at bookstores and online at www.amazon.com, www.BarnesandNoble.com, and www.iUniverse.com.