This is about love, forever and always. Last weekend, I was asked to care for the last of my mother’s sisters, her baby sister. My cousin needed me to care for her mother. There was no question I would agree to do so.
Growing up with no sisters, it was my mother’s sisters who gave me the "sisterhood" that I didn’t have in my home. These aunts were a handful. All of them were beautiful women, and I could go to any of them for answers to any question, from cooking to boys.
As they grew older, one by one, all my aunts, except for two, were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). I had forgotten the challenges of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s. But the realities came flooding back. My aunt didn’t remember my name.
Many of you know what AD is; some of you do not. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America defines the disease as a progressive, degenerative brain disorder. Typical warning signs are memory loss and confusion.
According to the Alzheimer’s Australia organization, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in older people. Dementia can happen to anyone, but it is most common after age 65.
Though my mother’s siblings have had AD, to my knowledge my grandparents did not. On my father’s side, neither he nor any of his siblings had it.
My father was just the opposite. When he died, I wished I had donated his brain to science. My dad never forgot a thing. He never used a calculator; he could count in his head.
I hadn’t visited with my aunt since December 2012. I had tried to caIl, but she doesn’t answer her cellphone anymore. Since my last visit, Alzheimer’s has taken a grievous toll.
Woman of accomplishment
My aunt lost her sight as an infant. Yes, she was blind.
But don’t feel sorry for her. She attended The School for the Blind in Alabama, graduating with honors, attended college, and earned a master’s degree from a university in Michigan.
She married and had two children. She was a better cook than many sighted people I know. Her collard greens and pound cake were, as they say, "to die for." She could quilt and clean her home. She was a marvel.
The cousin who asked me to care for her last weekend is a brain surgeon in metro Atlanta. Since I have personal knowledge of AD, my cousin felt she could leave her mother in my care.
Still, I had forgotten how tiring it can be to care for a person with AD.
Several times during the first evening, my aunt would call out someone’s name. My dog would bark, and I would be awakened.
That weekend, my dog kept getting into my garden, standing on the picnic table, just giving me a headache. I didn’t play with him much, so he had to find something to do. I think he knew something wasn’t the same, you see. I think dogs are smarter than some humans think they are. In the late stages of AD, some people initiate the same conversation over and over. This is what my aunt did, so I would answer what she asked, knowing I would hear the same question a minute later.
Over the weekend, several cousins from outside Georgia called me, as we talk often. They were happy to talk with our aunt, although she didn’t know them. We are a close family, so they will get to see her in person over the holidays.
Support system vital
As I said earlier, my mother had AD. I had to move her from Alabama to Georgia so I could help her.
As a caregiver, you need a good support system. Never try to do everything yourself, as I did. Give yourself some time to be without that loved one. Take a vacation from caregiving.
And you’ll need emotional support, too. In the metro-Atlanta area, there are several trusted Alzheimer’s groups, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter, as well as others.
Yes, I had forgotten the toll of Alzheimer’s. As the last night came and went, I hoped that somewhere in her mind, my aunt knew that she was loved and welcomed.
As an Alzheimer’s patient, my mother never started conservations like her sister did; she only answered a question when asked.
My mother died before she went into the late stage. I don’t think I could have taken it if she had gotten to the stage where she did not know me.
I got to catch up on my sleep after my weekend as a caregiver. But I know that for my cousin, and so many other families in Georgia and beyond, dealing with Alzheimer’s is a daily reality.
Dorothy Frazier Piedrahita welcomes reader comments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.