The Greatest Thief of All

"Hi, this is Dee from Homestead Health Care, and I'm calling about Chris..." Much like the dreaded call from the principal at your child's school, a call from the attendant care supervisor at my mother- in- laws assisted living facility strikes fear in our hearts. We've been getting several of these calls lately, and they're never good news.

"Chris is not coming to meals on her own, so we need to institute a meal reminder service..."

"Chris has been sick for the past couple of days, and we think she needs to go to the ER..."

and yesterday's call...

"Chris is becoming increasingly aggressive, and is hitting other residents, so you need to contact her physician and discuss sedatives..."

Oh my.

For the past six years, Alzheimer's disease has been stealing my mother-in-laws mental capacity, and with it her ability to drive, handle her finances, and care for her personal needs. Now, all the processes that govern behavior and speech appear to be deserting her as well, for she's acting completely without inhibitions in her relationships with the other residents and aides. She hits them if she thinks they have more food on their plate than she does, she calls them vulgar names when they beat her at Bingo, and yells at them if they don't include her in their conversation.

My mother-in-law has never been an easy person to deal with. A true pessimist, she was never satisfied with anything, and seemed to have no idea how to enjoy any of life's pleasures, small or large. My husband's favorite description of her attitude is that "it's all about me." Although I'm sure she felt affection and warmth for him, she never knew how to show it, in word or deed. Now, she doesn't recognize him as her son, asking "Is that my brother?" or "Are you my husband?" My heart aches for him, watching him take on this responsibility for her welfare, knowing that there will never be an opportunity to improve the relationship between them, and sadly having very few good memories of his own.

I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the people I know who are struggling with this situation - parents, spouses, siblings, lost to this disease. And when I visit "Chestnut Village," the very nice euphemism for the "locked ward" at the assisted living facility, I'm struck by the proliferation of places like this, warehousing for elderly people who have lost their senses and can no longer live in "normal" society. Day in and day out, they sit in the "family room" staring blankly as old movies play on the big screen TV, perhaps moving into the game room to play an occasional round of bingo. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad there are safe, caring alternatives for the multitudes of people suffering from this disease. My mother in law has a nice studio apartment, with her familiar furniture from home. She has three meals a day, someone to do her hair and nails every week, and laundry services. She just doesn't have any mind.

So, where does all this end? Many thousands of dollars later, and after countless hours of care and attention, there is no stopping the steady progress of decline. Alzheimer's continues to rob its victims of their dignity along with their memory and physcial function. To me, that's the greatest loss of all - for everyone concerned.