When my mother first experienced memory problems, she and I both attributed it to ordinary “senior moments.” Mom forgot words for ordinary objects.
“Can you pick up some, ummm, you know, those round things, at the store?” she might ask, frowning as she sought to remember a word that she had used since childhood.
It became an increasingly familiar guessing game as I would try to figure out what she wanted. “Sponges? Tomatoes? Lemons? Potatoes?” I would question, watching her gesture hopelessly.
And even when I finally discovered what she wanted (apples, for example), both she and I always looked at each other, experiencing emotions ranging from fear to frustration.
A Diagnosis That Brings Horror Rather than Hope
In most cases, achieving a diagnosis of a previously unknown ailment offers relief. Suppose you’re plagued with frequent headaches, for example. You visit your doctor, who diagnoses what you thought were “just” headaches as migraines. He prescribes medication to prevent the migraines, as well as a prescription for pain if and when a migraine attack does occur. Your emotion: relief.
With Alzheimers, however, there are no definitive remedies. Medications do exist to delay or manage some of the symptoms. But there is no definitive cure. And thus, for both the patient and those who love her or him, the reaction is fear and anxiety.
Alzheimers and Anxiety
I had to figure out how to avoid all the risks that arise in the daily life of someone with Alzheimers. I remember the morning that my mother boiled the teakettle to a crisp, resulting in the fire alarm blaring and my mother’s screams of fear. There was the day when I was taking a quick shower — and she decided to take a walk in her bathrobe and bedroom slippers. I came downstairs to find an open door – and no sign of my mother.
Fortunately, we live in a small town, and an alert neighbor who knew of the situation saw her voyaging past and guided her back home.
And my mother, in the moments when she realized her situation and “remembered” her diagnosis, experienced immense anxiety. “I can’t even do my crossword puzzle book anymore,” she cried one day, pushing the little “Easy, Large Print Crosswords” magazine at me. Ironically, my mother had taken up this hobby to try to keep her memory strong!
A Visit From Dr. Dog
All too soon, the time came when I recognized that I could not care for my mother in her own home anymore. She needed 24/7 care, literally, as well as help with even the simplest of tasks, such as bathing.
I began the tour of nursing homes, feeling sorrow and fear as I walked into each one. The seemingly inevitable smell, whether strong or masked with disinfectant, seemed to be in the very walls: a mix of urine, perspiration, overcooked food….
I finally chose one (the first in what has been many, as my mother required increasingly greater supervision). I helped my mother to settle into her room, seeing the fear, uncertainty, and extreme anxiety in her face.
“When you leave, take me with you,” she begged, and I had to force myself to hug her, to kiss her, to say, “Mom, I love you and I’ll be back to visit soon” – and then to leave.
As I walked down the hall, though, tears streaming down my face, I felt something furry brush my leg. I looked down — and a little dog wagged its tail against me. A small cloak around its body informed me that the dog was a licensed pet therapy companion, and a “staff” tag around its neck read “Gracie.”
“Would you like to hold Gracie?” the gentle woman with the little pup asked me. I nodded, bent down, and lifted up the little dog into my arms, nestling her against my heart. Tears dripped on her head, darkening her white fur.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, wiping off the tears. Gracie licked my hand.
I explained to Gracie’s owner about my mom, and she asked if my mother would like Gracie to visit her. I nodded, and the three of us walked back to my mother’s room. I knew my mother had loved her dogs growing up, but I wasn’t prepared for her reaction.
“Bebe!” my mother exclaimed, holding out her arms. I remembered that once she had told me her very first dog was named Bebe. The little dog went to my mother immediately, and my mom patted the bed. Gracie jumped up, curling up next to my mother.
“Bebe,” my mother whispered again. Gracie’s owner and I smiled at each other as my mother petted the little dog, whispering to her. I saw the anxiety ease to peace in my mother’s face.
Since then, my mother has had many visits from various dogs. Both she and I have been helped so much by these little therapists that I sometimes think of them not as dogs – but as angels wearing furry coats.