Since we moved back home, Cujo and I have been staying with my grandmother. Grandma’s 90, and we moved back partly because she’s getting older, frailer, and we wanted to be able to spend more time with her. I had hoped that we could reconnect and help her keep the farmhouse going.
Rather than connecting with her, I’ve come to the painful realization that Grandma’s changed. Where she used to have a sharp intellect, she’s now confused often. She forgets small things, big things, she mixes up things she’s told, and what she does know gets turned around in her head. It took me a long time to put a name to the differences that have happened so gradually yet have amounted to such a vast change. My grandmother has dementia. I don’t know if any of her doctors know. But having spent the last four months with her, I can decisively say that my grandmother is not the person that she once was. It’s as though the disease has hollowed out parts of her, left holes in her memory and reasoning and allowed other parts of her personality, parts that she once had under control, to expand.
Grandma has a standard poodle named Belle, and I think it’s safe to say that Grandma loves the poodle more fiercely than she loves anything, including her daughter or her grandchildren. She becomes frantic if the dog is out of her sight. When she takes the dog out into the yard, she’ll stand over it and yell at it to “Go poop!” But grandma can’t smell anymore, and the canned dog food she mixes in with the dry is rancid. Some days it stinks up the whole kitchen. She refuses to believe that the food has gone bad and insists that the dog won’t eat it if it’s spoiled. The dog has lost three pounds. The dog refuses to eat its food. Grandma can’t connect the dots. Cujo and I have decided that we need to start feeding the dog in secret, while maintaining the illusion that all is completely normal. We also have started taking the dog out more frequently, because Grandma looses track of time and doesn’t remember to let it out, nor is she responsive to the dog’s signals.
When I tell my mother these things, she nods and looks away, helpless. If Grandma could let go a little, listen to the people around her, we could take care of her. But instead, she wanders around the house, befuddled, believing the foggy truths her brain tells her.
What I haven’t told anyone, however, what squeezes my heart, is that in some ways, Grandma is happier than I have ever seen her. When my grandfather died, she clung to her grief like a lifesaver, refusing to move on even when over a decade had passed. She glorified her memory of him until he became a saint, while she continued to resent nearly everyone else in her life. She was half a person. Now, it seems that her failing memory has finally enabled her to let go of her grief. She used to cry every time I spoke with her, and I don’t think I’ve seen her cry in the last five months. I hate to think that dementia could be a good thing for her, but in this one way, it is.
I don’t know how long Cujo and I can stay with her and stay sane. Her distortions of reality make it hard to stay calm and patient, and her naturally suspicious nature has turned into full-blown paranoia. While she’s overall happier, even a mild suggestion that her perceptions could be wrong trigger a catastrophe. I know that I don’t have the skills or ability to manage this situation, yet I hope, for a little bit at least, I can take care of her, stave off the loss of independence that I know she fears more than anything.