As our society ages, more and more families are struggling to live with a family member who is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer disease. While memory loss can be a frightening experience for our aging parents or grandparents, its impact on the family can be equally frightening, particularly when there are young children in the home.
I learned that fact first hand when I brought my 93 year-old grandmother home to live with us. There were a host of reasons why I felt she should come to live with us; her home was old and in need of serious repair, there was a steep set of stairs that she had fallen down more than once, and perhaps most important, she had raised me as a child when my own mother was ill. For all of these reasons and my stubborn belief in the extended family, we brought her home to live with us.
After a very short time, we realized her dementia had progressed far beyond the simple forgetfulness she occasionally displayed. On most days, she would chuckle at her lapses of memory. On others she would lash out verbally and even physically as she retreated in terror at the unfamiliar.
Before coming to live with us, she had spent the past 30 years living alone. In retrospect I realize she was completely unprepared for the realities of living in an active household with children. The simple act of going up and down the stairs would wake her from a sound sleep and send her into a rage. The constant opening and closing of doors would accomplish the same. The house was never clean enough, our children had far too many friends coming to visit, and I never spent enough of my time sitting at the table and visiting with her over coffee.
Gradually, the reality became clear. I could not care for my children and my grandmother at the same time. The needs of one were diametrically opposed to the other. The active, laughter-filled household that made all the neighborhood children want to visit our home enraged my grandmother to the point of violence. Friends began to stay away and my children searched for excuses to spend their time elsewhere.
Agonized by the decision I had to make, God took pity and intervened. My grandmother suffered a heart attack and spent two weeks in intensive care. While she eventually recovered, she was left in a weakened state and her equilibrium was severely compromised. The result: under medical advice, she would be unable to return to our home and required 24-hour care.
Today she lives in a Catholic nursing home and I am truly astounded by the changes she has undergone in just a few short months. Their care has been nothing short of miraculous. With diligent monitoring of her diet she has lost the extra weight she put on, and has been removed from all medication. She is more active, and truly enjoys the companionship of others her age. She occasionally asks about coming back to live with us and I laugh with joy. “Are you nuts?” I ask her. “You look better today than you have in ten years.”
The simple reality is that others were far better equipped to provide my grandmother with the care she needed. As our population ages, and people live far beyond the life expectancy of even 20 years ago, more and more families will be forced to acknowledge their limitations, just as I was. Choosing to place a family member in a nursing home is not an admission of failure on your part, but an acceptance of the fact that prolonged life expectancy carries with it a need for more complex care than the vast majority of us can ever hope to provide.