Nov 6, 2012

Alzheimer's Changes- It's Not Just Train Rides That They Forget

“I will never forget that train ride,” Mom said. “That was really something.” Ultimately, however, she did forget it, like virtually everything else.

By Elaine Pereira

My mom and I were at the train station in Kalamazoo, MI on a beautiful summer day. The remodeled station was attractive and safe, with a fenced-in parking lot for passenger cars and travel buses.

I was taking my mom via the Amtrak train to Chicago to see my Aunt Dee, Mom’s sister-in-law, and my cousins. I was fairly certain this would be Mom’s last trip to Chicago, which it was.

Before I drifted off to sleep, basked in the warmth of the sun and mesmerized by the repetitive white noise of the train's clicking over the tracks, I glanced in Mom’s direction. She was fixated on the pages of her National Geographic but she never turned them, a telltale sign that she was reading without processing the words, if she was reading it at all.

I wondered how long this had been going on without my noticing?

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We had a great visit with “the Chicago family,” as I referred to them, although to my surprise, Mom only recognized Dee.

Our train trip home, however, was a real adventure! My daughter Christie was pregnant with her first child and wanted to tell her grandmother in person, so we had all planned to meet in Kalamazoo on Sunday after Mom and I returned. It was a great plan that fell apart when the train broke down. It was literally stuck on the tracks in a field of tall grass in the middle of nowhere. We sat there for about fifteen minutes, and then the train started up and chugged along until it quit a second time, then a third and a fourth, and every time there was literally nothing around us but green.

On the fifth stop, well over an hour behind schedule, we were finally at a crossroads in a small town. I could see a Ford dealership, a gas station, and a diner. Then I noticed that some passengers were getting up, gathering their belongings, and exiting the train. I decided to do the same. My mom was a trouper and laughed as we navigated the incredibly deep steps off the train and schlepped our bags along the railroad tracks. The sight of a petite, eighty-three-year-old, white-haired woman dragging a wheeled suitcase had to have been hysterical, but we did it!

My mom talked about our great train escape for a while. “I will never forget that train ride,” Mom said. “That was really something.” Ultimately, however, she did forget it, like virtually everything else.

* * *
2009-2010 On subsequent visits to Mom's there were increasingly more reports of missing things.

Mom accused someone of taking her stamps. “Seven dollars’ worth of stamps,” she said. “I just bought them and now they’re stolen.” They were “found and returned,” she admitted later. Then Dad’s wooden stamp holder was supposedly taken until it reappeared in the back of her desk drawer. “They snuck it in here while I was out” was her warped explanation.

 “They” were often different people—the cleaning ladies, someone with a key, and so on. “Anybody can get in here,” she hissed. The list of surely stolen items was endless: her black Rockports—which I found under the bed—a nail file (seriously! a nail file?) and more.

I envisioned the early stages of Mom’s dementia as a cunning, smoldering fire, its smoke whirling up and down, in and out, around and through her brain. Occasionally it would choke her orientation to time, sometimes cloud her vision or pretzel-twist her gray matter. It always lay in wait, concealed in the crevices of her short-term memory centers, fogging judgment, reasoning, and logic.

For a while, it would remain dormant, having already ravaged parts of her mind permanently until, like wildfires, something sparked it to flare up, engulfing and consuming its insatiable appetite for brain cells.

Mom would never get better. All I could do was be there for every step of her journey through hell and pray that was enough. She deserved better; everyone did. She deserved to go out with her boots on, not have her mind chipped and chiseled away piece by piece.

Eventually Mom had to be moved to a more secure assisted living setting. After a drama-filled, tumultuous year of adjustment, bizarre wanderings, deterioration, hospitalizations and, oh yes, occasional brilliant moments of lucidity in which she thanked me for all I had done for her, Mom passed away, July 8, 2011.

More than a year after her death, I can now feel her energizing spirit envelope me with positive memories and I grieve less for my loss.

I can hear Mom's kind voice once again, not the ranting of a possessed woman.

 I can feel her strong arms hugging me, not her foot kicking me.

 I can see her beautiful eyes and warm smile, not her strained face conveying unadulterated confusion.

Wonderful memories of her are emerging from behind the dark clouds of Alzheimer's, an insidious disease that robs us of our loved ones.

Elaine C. Pereira
Elaine C. Pereira is a retired school occupational therapist who worked with special needs children. She earned her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Wayne State University and later completed her master’s degree. Pereira and her husband live in Michigan. Elaine is the author of - I Will Never Forget: A Daughter's Story of Her Mother's Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia

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