By Kylynn Pelkey | firstname.lastname@example.org
I spent thanksgiving this year at an Alzheimer’s home. My Grandmother’s sister, Sandie, was transferred into the home about two months ago. The transition has been hard on her family.
Sometimes she doesn’t remember her son, Steven Jr., who pushed to put her in a home. Once, she didn’t remember her husband, Steve.
“Why is that man in my room? Who is that man?” she asked the nurse.
Steve cries often. He drives an hour nearly everyday to spend time with her. But every night, he drives home to their old house and sleeps in their bed alone. Sandie stays with the nurses in her new room with a twin bed, a small loveseat, a private bathroom and pictures of her forgotten family on the walls.
When Gran asked me if I would have Thanksgiving dinner with Sandie and the family, I was glad to agree. I’ve lived in Florida for four years now and I’ve grown close to Gran and her two sisters who live an hour drive from Flagler College.
I witnessed Sandie’s gradual decline over the past few years — forgetting where she was, driving away on the golf cart and never returning, leaving the stove on, losing track of her purse and keys.
On the occasional weekend, I would drive to Port Orange and wash my laundry at Gran’s. Every once in awhile, I would have dinner or lunch with Sandie and Steve. Every once in awhile she wouldn’t recognize me.
At Thanksgiving dinner, Steven Jr. sat next to his mom and she seemed lucid, participating in light conversation. Dinner was served at noon by the nurses. They delivered heaping plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pudding, cranberry sauce, stuffing and green beans. A very traditional meal followed by pecan, pumpkin and apple pie.
I sat next to Steve at the opposite end of the table to Sandie. He seemed to have aged enormously since I’d seen him last. When he asked me questions softly, I spoke loudly and comically about the events in my life. He asked about my family. I told him boisterous stories about the few happenings I was aware of involving my parents and siblings and invented tales about my classes and work, teasing smiles and chuckles from him.
After the meal, we strolled through the rose garden outside Sandie’s window. Thanksgiving 2011 proved to be a gorgeous day — wispy clouds rimmed the blue sky, bees dipped from flower to flower and we basked in the sun with full stomachs.
I sat with my elderly relatives and their children and grandchildren. I was the odd one out. I was the only one who everyone didn’t know. They turned to me for conversation, looked to me to ease and distract them from their mother’s condition. How is school? Where is your family living now? What are you studying? What do you plan to do after you graduate in April? My answers were lengthy and lighthearted, carefree, but spirited. I did my best to divert Sandie’s family from the dismal decline of her brain’s neurons.
As we sat on a bench in the rose garden lively with bees, my attempts at rising smiles was brought to a sudden halt.
“How am I getting home?” Sandie asked. Her voice was strong. One after another, she looked us all in the eye. Time stood still. No one knew quite how to answer.
“Don’t start this now,” Steve pleaded. “It’s such a beautiful day.”
“Let’s go inside, mom,” Steven Jr. offered.
“No,” Sandie said, firmly. “I don’t want to go inside because then you will all leave me.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually we walked back to Sandie’s room. She refused to talk to Steve.
“He’s going to leave me,” she repeated over and over.
Like sheep, we mulled aimlessly in the hallway, unsure of how to proceed. No one knew what to do or how to react.
My first instinct was to comfort her, to stay with her, to make her feel loved on Thanksgiving. They say that Alzheimer’s is harder on the caregivers and family than on the affected individual, but it was quickly becoming clear to me that this was not the case. Sandie felt abandoned by her family. Would she remember tomorrow that her family left her alone on Thanksgiving?
A nurse named Anita found us waiting in Sandie’s room. She held a bottle of white wine on one hip and a half full glass in her hand.
“It’s best if you all just leave,” Anita said. “All of you, all at the same time. I’ll take her outside, we’ll have a glass of wine and a snuggle. It’s best this way. Go now.”
We filed out the door, letting ourselves believe that the nurse with the wine knew best. Anita knew better how to deal with Alzheimer’s patients than we did, why not do as she said? And we did. Sandie was sitting in the far corner of the dining room as we ducked toward the back door.
I was the last to leave and although we all hoped we could sneak out while she wasn’t looking, Sandie turned toward us and her tear-stained face looked into mine as I stepped through the doorway.
We left her alone. She was crying and so was I. I put on my sunglasses to hide my eyes. Maybe she wouldn’t remember it ever happened.