I think what most people would find more surprising is how the brain can deteriorate so much. That yesterday can be forgotten, your last meal can be forgotten, even your last sentence can be forgotten. But what I find more surprising is the ability to remember. I mean 1 in 13 people aged 65 and over have dementia. It baffles my mind that the majority of minds are able to link their yesterdays to their tomorrows.
Some people could, and would, argue that you’re nothing without your memory. You’re past is what makes you you. Two weeks ago I probably would’ve agreed, but after spending almost every afternoon for the past two weeks with Jean, my elderly neighbour who has alzheimers, I heavily disagree. She really doesn’t remember much. She can’t remember what happened last year, or last month, or last week. She usually doesn’t remember when you got there, or who you are. But she is bursting full of Jean.
The first couple of days were really hard for me. She changed every minute. It was hard to keep up with her, hard to watch her suffer. It was hard to know how to comfort her, or what she wanted. It was hard to try to understand her broken sentences and try to keep her content. Honestly, after the first day I didn’t really want to go back. But I did, and have been back just about every day since. And on those days that I haven’t visited her, I’ve missed her incredibly.
Jean is now one of my closest friends. She’s always been incredibly involved in my life, she’s been my grandma next door, but I’ve never considered her a friend. Until now. She makes me laugh so hard. She inspires me with her attitude, and her love. She’s laughing all the time, even when there’s nothing to laugh at. She makes me want to be her one day.
I’m able to understand her now, even though sometimes I think I’m reading her mind. I go along with the silly things that she says. I try to help her to remember. We do puzzles and read books. We have conversations. I hold her hand and feed her dinners. But mostly, I laugh too.
This evening I was with her and we were looking at a picture of her husband Walter, me and herself. I kept pointing to each one of us and got her to tell me who we were. Sometimes she got it right, but the next second she got it wrong. This went on for a very long time and when she started to get it more right than wrong, I was trying to get her to say my name when I pointed to me (instead of just “you!”). Each time she would remember a little bit more, and a little bit more and just about when I thought she was going to get it right this is what happened:
And then we both burst out laughing.
Each day brings such an incredible thing. Just because she can’t remember much, doesn’t mean that she’s forgotten how to enjoy herself. All the nurses love her, and how could they not?! She tells them how beautiful they are, and laughs when they get frustrated.
When I arrived at her room the other day, she started telling me that Walter had fallen asleep when he was there that morning. I didn’t really believe her because she doesn’t usually remember enough to tell me about her day. But she was furious! She kept going on and on about how he comes to visit her but then just falls asleep! She was telling me that she was “one mad woman!” and that I should never get married. When I was talking to Walter that evening I told him about this, and he admitted that he did fall asleep. He thought it was hilarious that she was so worked up. He told me, “She can’t remember anything, but she can remember that I fell asleep!” They are the cutest, most in love people I’ve ever met in my life. They are truly, truly such an inspiration to me.
We sit in the room and watch people walk by her door for hours on end. She asks me, “Is that your boyfriend?” and looks at me for my reaction (which is pretty funny when she points to 80 year old women) and laughs at me. She points at old men, and tells me that they are such old men. She laughs when other patients are causing chaos out in the hall. And she laughs at the stories that she creates about these passer-byers.
When I got there the other day she looked at me, pointed at my face and shouted “WHAT’S THAT ON YOUR NOSE?!” She was talking about my nose ring, and I just relied with “Well, you’re sharp today Jean!”. Everyday she tells me that I’m so young and pretty. She touches face, and sometimes kisses it. (Tonight we eskimo kissed) She tells me how nice my outfit is. And when there are other visitors she tells them all about me. She doesn’t necessarily remember who I am or what our history is, but she tells them what a dear I am, what a darling I am, how I would do anything for her, and how much we love each other.
Sometimes she gets so so goofy, that even she admits that she might have had a couple of drinks! (Even though she definitely hadn’t.) And sometimes she acts like such a brat and intentionally does things to make me laugh. (Like today when I was getting her to read the alphabet and she would look at me with a sly face and say the wrong letters, or tell me there are no letters. Or when I bent down to wipe a spill up off the floor and she was holding this block out for me like I was a dog.) Everyday is filled with such fun. I never know what to expect, and I’m always surprised at the amount of Jean that’s there.
When I was younger I would run to Jean for repose. I remember one thunderstorm in particular that had me so frightened that my parents had to bring me over to Jean so that I would stop crying. Many times that I was sick I would go sleep on her couch. Her raspberries grown with love in her backyard always taste sweeter than any other raspberries. She has pulled out my wiggly teeth. Given me big bowls of ice cream, and no hot cocoa has ever beaten hers. The majority of the pictures I have painted in my life have gone to her. Any time anything exciting happened to me, she was one of the first to know.
As with most relationships in life, time changes things. Our relationship was no exception. When junior high came around, and especially high school, I didn’t have much time for Jean and Walter. My mom tells me that she’s worried that we’re now getting so close, considering the shape that she’s in. Honestly, I am too. But I wouldn’t rather be spending my time anywhere else. As unfortunate as this situation is, I’m so glad that I’ve been able to spend so much time with both of them. My grandparents next door.