Grandma remembered me, mostly. She introduced me to someone as her young cousin, then realized, “no, that isn’t right. You’re my…” “Granddaughter,” I finished for her. She smiled and chuckled. She did remember that I visited with the whole family two weeks ago. My aunt Sandy was in town and together with my mom she rounded up the rest of our family – another aunt, uncle and cousins. She enjoyed seeing everyone, and recognized them, mostly. When one of my cousins arrived late, Grandma introduced her to everyone. Grandma didn’t recognize her, and mom pointed out, “she belongs to Mark” (my uncle). She recognizes people and makes the connections when parents visit with their children or when couples come with each other. When Sandy first got into town, my stepdad Chris picked her up from the airport and brought her to visit Grandma. Chris has visited fairly often with my mother, but this time Grandma didn’t recognize him. Had my cousin come with Mark and had Chris come with Mom, she may have made the connection. It was an awkward dinner. My youngest cousin of 15 years didn’t even make eye contact with her. She was fiddling with her smart phone half the time, and during the brief moments they interacted she was looking down. The most awkward moment, with a long period of silence, came as everyone was leaving that night. Grandma said, “Thank you all for coming to say goodbye.” I was standing a few feet behind her and I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders, but I was afraid to startle her, coming from behind. Do you ever feel frozen in an awkward silence, with a stream of thoughts running through your mind but with no confidence or courage to say or do anything? My cousin in front of her simply said, “It’ll be ok, Grandma.” She’s dying slowly, with her cognitive functions diminishing.
My mom always asks her, “how are you today?” to which she replies, “Oh, the same as always I guess.” I hear she has bad days, but I haven’t seen her often enough to know what those are like. Shortly after that dinner, I went to another assisted living center with my BCMT class to work on elderly clients, including people in the reminiscence ward - people with dementia & Alzheimers. They have difficulty finding the right words. They enjoy massage, but when asked if they want one, they might respond, "no" or "I don't know." I spent at least 15 minutes with one woman at this center, who at first simply turned her head away when I asked if she would like a massage. She seemed engrossed in something happening across the room. I sat next to her, gently rubbed her shoulders, and a few minutes later noticed her hand twitching slightly, so I held it as I continued to rub her shoulders. When working with those who have trouble with language, noticing non-verbal cues is crucial. Being patient and working slowly are also important. After being with her for 10 minutes, which felt like a very long 10 minutes, she finally said that it felt good. Massage therapy improves the quality of life for those with dementia - reducing stress, depression and agitation - and all it takes is a gentle shoulder rub while being present, aware of their non-verbal cues and having patience. Touch is a basic human need. If you know someone with Alzheimers, practice your compassion and reach out a hand for them.
If you'd like to learn more about people with Alzheimer's, here are some interviews and some articles on new research: