By Max Wallack
+Alzheimer's Reading Room
For the summer of 2007, my family was planning a vacation. By “my family”, I include myself, my mom and dad, my grandmother and grandfather, and my great grandmother. My parents wanted to go back to Hawaii, where they had spent their honeymoon. There was never any question about whether we would take great grams with us; we always did. By then, great grams was about 93 (no one knew for sure.) She also had advanced dementia, and she was on numerous medications.
Our trip to Honolulu was uneventful. Great grams sat next to my grandmother, where she often felt secure. Great grams frequently fluctuated greatly in her behavior and level of recognizing reality. Sometimes she was her old self, only to turn into what, to me, looked like a raging lunatic an hour later.
Our first two days were very pleasant. Great grams stayed with my grandparents, down the hall from my parents and me. Great grams thought the resort was beautiful. She loved watching the penguins that lived at the hotel, and she loved watching me feed the penguins. She enjoyed sitting on a shaded deck and watching my parents and me on the beach.
My grandmother stayed with her at all times. The only anxiety great grams was dealing with seemed to be the little birds that flew around the hotel’s open air restaurant. Great grams was very scared of them, and she ate very little, even though she usually had a good appetite.
The next day was kind of hot. My grandmother wanted to go into the hotel pool for just a few minutes. My grandfather would sit nearby with great grams. Great grams was very upset at that idea, but grandma went in anyway. Sometimes, grandma just had to take a couple of minutes to do what she needed to do. Great grams was upset all day after that.
When we all went back to our rooms in the early evening, great grams made a run for it and started telling random hotel guests in the hallway that my grandma was trying to kill her! My grandma explained to the people that great grams had dementia, and, thankfully, the episode passed. Grandma gave great grams a little extra medicine, which the doctor had approved, and everyone settled down for the night.
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The next day, the whole family went to the Polynesian Cultural Center. We sat great grams in a wheelchair and pushed her all around the area. She seemed really happy. We watched some brief shows, and she enjoyed them. It was a long day. We got back to the hotel around 9:30 pm, and we went to sleep.
We decided to spend the next day close to the hotel. Great grams had not eaten much for breakfast, so at lunch time we took her to a place that had one of her favorite kinds of soup. She really enjoyed that.
We had seen many people play the ukele at the resort. Great grams always enjoyed music, and she had told my grandma that she should get me a ukele. So, after lunch we headed for a special store at one end of the resort that only sold hand made ukeles.
We took great grams in a wheelchair because it was a long walk for her. As soon as we entered the shop, great grams became very anxious. We took her just outside the shop, which was still in viewing distance and inside the hotel, and my mom, dad, and grandpa stood with her while my grandma and I looked at ukeles. My grandma bought one for me and one for my cousin.
When we came out of the shop and great grams saw that we had purchased ukeles, she had a complete breakdown. She got up out of her wheelchair, ran to the nearest security guard, and told him we were trying to kill her. My grandma tried to explain things, but the guard said that the resort rules were that the Honolulu police would have to be called whenever a hotel guest said they were in any danger.
The next two hours were spent meeting various native Hawaiians -- the members of the Honolulu Police Department. They asked to see what medications we were giving great grams. My grandma had a bottle of pills, but she had put all the different kinds in one bottle to make it easier to carry; she knew which was which by the color. However, the police wanted to see the individual prescriptions on the bottles, which she didn’t have. PLEASE, if you ever travel with a person with dementia, take all the prescription bottles with you!!
After a while, the manager of the entire resort was called. She saved the day. Why? Because her own mother was suffering from dementia, and she quickly recognized what was happening.
The police let us go. Great grams was still screaming murder, but we wheeled her back to the hotel reception area where she sat for a few hours telling anyone that would listen about her plight. After several hours, she calmed down, and we all went back to our rooms.
The next day, we went to Dole Plantation. That’s really the last time I can remember my great grams really enjoying herself and being very happy. She loved Dole Plantation. She loved riding around on the little train and seeing all the plants, and she was even cognizant enough to comment on how rich and smart the man must be who owned and operated all of this. She loved eating the frozen dole whip.
She wanted to buy me a T-shirt at the store. Suddenly, she was the person she had been several years back. That’s what made her disease so hard for me and other family members to understand. If her brain was dying, then how could she suddenly seem fine for a day?
One doctor explained it like this: “It’s an electrical connection. The thought has to jump the nerve synapse. The system is faulty. Most of the thoughts never succeed in making the jump, but, SOMETIMES, the thought jumps the synapse”. Well, at the Dole Plantation, great grams's thoughts were making Olympic jumps!
The next day, we headed home. We ran into a small problem at the airport and another on the plane, but I think I’ll leave those stories for another day.
I’m glad we took great grams with us to Hawaii. We would not have gone without her. I grew up feeling a sense of responsibility for her. I think that made me a more responsible person. The feelings of satisfaction that I got from helping her were so positive that they lead me to seek out ways to help others. She had a profound influence on my childhood, and, I’m sure, a profound influence on my future profession.
PUZZLES TO REMEMBER. PTR is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and veterans institutions that care for Alzheimer's and dementia patients.
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