J and I are visiting her brother and sister-in-law for a couple of days. On Thursday night, we had dinner with our sister-in-law and her mother, E. It was somewhat painful. E is 89 years old and suffers from dementia. She is farther along than my 64-year-old wife, J, who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
E was not sure she had ever met us, although she certainly has several times in the 30-plus years her daughter and I have been part of J’s family. E asked repeatedly where we were from. We patiently answered every time.
E also asked many times if J and I are sisters. J and I have been partners for 30 years and have been legally married for two. I saw no reason to try and explain that to E. I’m sure it would have been confusing for her.
I didn’t take any of this personally. I understand that E sometimes asks her daughter, K, if she is married. K and J’s brother married 30 years ago.
My first reaction to this visit with E was it brought back the pain and hilarity of my father’s dementia. He had emergency heart surgery in 1999 and was cognitively impaired for the rest of his life. At one group restaurant meal, which is now part of family lore, he repeatedly asked, “Fried or grilled?” in reference to a calamari order. “Fried, Dad.” “Fried or grilled?” “Fried, Dad.” You get the idea. For years after, the refrain, “Fried or grilled?” would cause me and my sisters to double over in laughter. Not in a mean way. Just sometimes we need to see the absurdity of a situation and laugh about it.
My second reaction was to question if J will soon have the same diffculties as E remembering people and following conversations. J already doesn’t recall people she doesn’t see often. And she is often very quiet in group settings because she can’t keep up with fast-paced talk. I tell myself that the course of Alzheimer’s disease is highly individual, that none of us knows what tomorrow will bring, and that all I can do is my best to meet well whatever unfolds.
My final reaction is enormous love and respect for K. She is there for her mother, E, every step of the way. I have never heard her complain or express fatigue. She seems to have limitless stores of patience and love. I am lucky to have her as part of my family and support, and as an example to emulate.