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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alzheimer’s and The Checkbook


Then, one day, Great Grams’ son came to visit. Great Grams was very agitated. She didn’t recognize him. Throughout the day, she accused him of various horrific acts. That evening, when she was upstairs with her son, he said to her, as a joke, "So, can I have your checkbook"?......
By Max Wallack

Alzheimer’s and The Checkbook

My great grandmother, who died of Alzheimer’s almost three years ago, grew up very poor. Every penny mattered to her. Every cent was budgeted.

 She married my great grandfather in her twenties. He was a brilliant man, but family misfortune had deprived him of an education.

Together, they struggled financially.

My great grandfather worked on a pushcart, selling fruits and vegetables out of a little shop that was located in the basement of what is now historic Faneuil Hall. Great Grams and Great Grandpa had two children, and they lived in a Boston Housing Project. Great Grams always impressed on her children that the only way for them out of poverty was through education. She succeeded: her son got a Ph.D. and her daughter an M.A.

I believe that the focus on money that was necessary throughout Great Grams’ life is what showed itself to such an extreme extent when she entered the world of Dementia. We first realized Great Grams had “Dementia” when she was about 90, although in retrospect, we realize she had had it for several years before that.

Great Grams spent HOURS each day studying her checkbook. She kept it with her all the time. Often, Great Grams would start writing and figuring in the checkbook. She often became frustrated by this if she kept it up a long time, but we thought it was good for her to try to be figuring herself.

She would figure and figure, but she could never “make it come out right”. She would ask my grandmother, probably twenty times a day, to recheck it. Sometimes, she would ask my grandmother to write things in it. Then, she would look at the checkbook and say that something was wrong because it wasn’t in her own handwriting.

Sometimes, she didn’t want to go to sleep at night because she had to fix her checkbook. In the car, she would whip out her checkbook and study it. She would wait for the mailman each day. If a checkbook statement or a bill came for her, she would obsess over it.

It didn’t matter if we helped her for hours to explain her checking account statement, the next day she would claim to have waited all day to have us explain it to her. Fifty percent of her time was spent on her checking account, which usually had only two or three entries in a month.

Sometimes, it seemed that Great Grams wanted to embellish her checking account to make it more interesting. Whenever she was at the supermarket, which had a bank branch in it, she would insist that she needed to withdraw money from her account. She might withdraw $100. The next day, she insisted she needed to go to the bank because she had too much cash and she needed to put it in the bank.

One time, we all went on a trip to Washington, D.C. Grandma finally convinced Great Grams that she should leave her checkbook at home so it couldn’t get lost. We thought we were in for a real vacation, checkbook free!

Actually, on that trip, things worked pretty well in D.C., but on the way home Great Grams started looking through her pocketbook for her checkbook. She didn’t believe us that she left it at home. (We could hardly believe that ourselves.) She insisted we had stolen it from her, and we were taking out her money. She never stopped talking about it for the entire 5 hours in the car. At home, when she was reunited with her beloved checkbook, she finally quieted down.

I know it is said that distraction is the best solution to when a person with Dementia obsesses about something. We always tried, but somehow Great Grams could never be distracted when she got some idea in her head. Maybe, this was the remnants of that same goal orientated personality that had gotten her through the many trials in her life.

We were discussing, at home, possible solutions to the checkbook obsession, which was clearly occupying much too many hours of many people’s time. One possibility we considered was having dual checkbooks, so that Great Grams’ checkbook wouldn’t have any entries in it, if we could convince her that she didn’t have any bills any more. That way, she would be happy that her social security would be entered, but no withdrawals would ever show up.

We did try something like that, for a while. Whenever Great Grams needed medications, other family members paid for it, rather than go through increased checkbook saga. However, no matter how little ever happened in her checkbook, Great Grams was more attached to her checkbook than to her right arm.

Then, one day, Great Grams’ son came to visit. Great Grams was very agitated. She didn’t recognize him. Throughout the day, she accused him of various horrific acts. That evening, when she was upstairs with her son, he said to her, as a joke, “So, can I have your checkbook?”

And, you know what? She gave it to him! He handed it to us, and she never mentioned her checkbook again. Such a strange illness!

My great grandmother, who died of Alzheimer’s almost three years ago, grew up very poor. Every penny mattered to her.

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Max Wallack is a student at Boston University Academy. His great grandmother, Gertrude Finkelstein, suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Max is the founder of PUZZLES TO REMEMBER , a 501(c.)3 charitable organization. PUZZLES TO REMEMBER is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and other institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.

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