The Cruel Irony of Alzheimer’s DiseaseFebruary 6, 2012
By Amy M. Collins, associate editor
As I watch my grandmother navigate the murky waters of her Alzheimer’s disease, it continues to surprise me that parts of her brain work at warp speed, while other parts seem to be completely defunct. For example, although she can’t remember what she’s done from one minute to the next, she can make up a lie to compensate for the memory loss in less than 30 seconds.
“Where did you get that new necklace, Grandma?” I recently asked at a family party. “Oh I bought it at the place where I work, you know, I type at a school,” she said, with certainty. Or when asked where she got a new sweater, she told my mother she went to the store. “How did you get there?” my mother asked. “I drove,” she said. “But you don’t have a car.” “Oh, well then I must have walked.”
She no longer remembers my name unless prodded, but she does remember that she has a cat in her room at the independent living center, and worries about it constantly. “I have to get back to take care of my cat,” she says when she visits us, becoming increasingly stressed the longer she’s away. Yet it’s hard for her to remember to care for herself, and she often forgets to shower or eat.
She still has a sense of humor, making fun of the “old” people at her facility and bragging about how great her own paintings are. She once complained about a photo of her that hangs in her independent living center’s entrance, together with photos of all the other residents. “Maybe it’s just the lighting, because nobody’s photo looks good,” my aunt said. “Yes, but the other residents really look like that,” my grandmother quipped.
But sometimes even her ability to laugh at things is heartbreaking. She recently called because she was worried about my grandfather—she couldn’t find him in the home. “Dad’s been dead for eight years,” my mother told her, worried at what my grandmother’s reaction might be in revisiting this particular pain. “Oh, well, then that explains it,” she said. “I was wondering how we both fit in a single bed!”
Another unexpected acuity is her ability to outwit her nurses. When it’s time for them to dispense her pills, she sometimes convinces them she’s already taken them. She’s also managed to sidestep nurses’ intervention in her diet. After my grandmother had gained weight over the past few months, the nurse we hired to keep an eye on her told the waiter at her facility not to give her any more ice cream after dinner or bacon for breakfast. While “in her right mind,” she would never have eaten these foods, even once denying my dying grandfather eggs because of “high cholesterol.” But the day after the nurse intervened with the waiter, we found out my grandmother had switched tables, got a new waiter, and got the bacon.
Recently AJN chose its annual Book of the Year awards. When it was over and the books had been judged, staff members were able to browse books they might be interested in. I picked The Alzheimer’s Caregiver Puzzle, by Patricia R. Callone and Connie Kudlacek. The book explains that in the early-to-mild stage of the disease, the temporal lobe of the brain is affected, with the changes attacking memory and language. But the frontal lobe is still intact, and as such so are social skills, reasoning, and judgment. I guess this explains why my grandmother can ask the same question repeatedly for 20 minutes, but can trick you into believing she hitchhiked to the local mall to get her hair done, when in reality she had it done at her facility.
As I read about the mechanisms behind the illness, I realize it’s just a disease—it has no personality, no vengeance. But somehow I’m still angry at it, and the way it seems to strike its victims so unfairly, in such contradictory ways, like a cruel joke.