friend has Alzheimer's. She's been drifting away from me - and from her
family- and other friends - for years without any of us understanding why.
When she sounded reluctant to go for our long walks, something we'd both
always loved to do, I assumed she was merely finding this older age too
tiring. When I asked her to go for rides in the car, she made vague excuses,
such as "I just have a little bug." I began thinking maybe she
no longer liked me. For over 30 years of our friendship, I've been the
mover, the shaker, the talker. And she's been the appreciative listener.
The sharer of laughs. The giver. It never occurred to me that there was
an underlying reason for this subtle withdrawal.
back, I now realize she probably began to show symptoms of Alzheimer's
disease at least 10 years ago. She lived at home up until moving to a nursing
home last year. I have come to understand how insidiously Alzheimer's creeps
into a life. And I know, from visiting her in the nursing home, what a
unique and terrible destruction it brings.
friend has always been the epitome of femininity, the lover of quality,
the possessor of a quiet and strong faith, the gentle protector of children.
As we would drive past children, she would inevitably say: "What cute
even now, I can still find remnants of her old self. In the midst of the
wheelchairs, the dozing, lost-seeming patients, the querulous- acting old
people, she still has the persona of a lady. She still smiles. Still is
courteous. When we walk up and down the halls of the nursing home, she
says to the other patients: "I want you to meet my friend Jane. I'm
so sorry, I can't remember your name." She still cares about her appearance.
When I complimented her on her hair recently, she glanced in the mirror
and said, "The girl made it just a little darker than I prefer."
there is the other side to my friend. The stranger. Although she knows
me instantly, and may say my name 20 times in an hour visit, she doesn't
know where she is. She doesn't know her husband visited her that morning.
She doesn't know the names of her grandchildren. And most of the time she
doesn't even know that she's not in her home.
indecisive. Worried. Puzzled. Frighteningly fragile. One of the nursing
home's therapists said she was sure my friend is often fearful. But only
for a minute or so. Only in the fleeting times when she knows something
is different, not just right. When, no matter how hard she tries, she can't
would like to console her. But it would be like consoling a shadow. Or
a memory. Because this woman who gives me vague smiles, who utters absolute
"nothings", is, much of the time, absolutely unfamiliar to me.
simply cannot find my good friend in the fragile, shell-like, hesitant
woman I visit. It's almost as if she has died. In some ways, her fate seems
worse than death.
week we shared a laugh together. It felt like a miracle. She told me that
I'd never complained in all the years of our friendship. I said, "I
complained all the time! " She smiled and said, "Well, I'm sure
it was justified." And I said, "I'm sure it was too!" And
then, in seconds, we were back to that vague, polite confused difficult
situation. I know a man who says talking to shallow, vapid people is like
eating tissue paper. And talking to my friend now really is like eating
tissue paper. There's no substance, no satisfaction. I remember one visit
when I could not get my friend to respond to me. Her face was drawn-looking.
She had deep hollows in her cheeks. When I looked at her, I thought of
the word "diminished."
another visit she said: "I think I'd like to continue this conversation
some other time." I asked, "You want me to leave?" She looked
indecisive. I waited. Then she said; "Yes. Yes, I believe I do".
doesn't watch television, or read or take frequent naps where she lives
now. So, why did she want me to go? I'm sure she didn't know why herself.
There's just no logic possible within her Alzheimer's-affected mind.
of her is her old self. Part of her is a confused, senile old woman. Part
of her is a young child. And part of her simply can't be defined. For Alzheimer's
has taken most of her away. And, given nothing back.
continue to visit her. Although, five minutes after I've gone, I know she
won't remember that I was there. Still if some small part of her, buried
deep, hungers for companionship, for affection, I can do no less than sometimes
be with her.
would have done the same for me.
This article first appeared in the Spokesman-Review back in 1992, and was written by Jane Lavagetto a free-lance writer.