Family Caregivers, Gram Helen's Story

Merry Christmas, Sort Of

Christmas started out so pleasantly.

I went to the home where Grandma lives, and found her sitting alone, looking a little sad. I said “Merry Christmas, Gram! Let’s get you ready to go see Barbara.” She looked up, and said she didn’t feel like going anywhere. I took her hand and said “But it’s Christmas! You want to be with the family, don’t you?” She agreed, and followed me to her room.

Our first task was to change her clothes. Her outfits lately are something else. They seldom match. She is often wearing a combination of her clothes and shirts or pants belonging to someone else. Her sweaters are usually buttoned wrong (usually off by one). Nothing awful…just a little off. And totally NOT OK for Christmas.

By the time we had changed her clothes and called Mom to check in, she was ready for the day. The great-great-grandsons were with us at Mom’s, so the day was going to be fun. Gram enjoyed seeing the new baby. She loved visiting with the toddler, and watching him play on the iPad. She enjoyed drinking her coffee and watching to action. She didn’t join us at the dinner table, but she doesn’t always do that anymore. Too busy for her there, and she claims not be hungry. Mom served her a small meal in the living room, where she could join the conversation, even if she wasn’t at the table.

Shortly after dinner Gram said she was tired. Mom took her to her old room, and let her lay on the bed for a quick nap. An hour later she came out of the room and sternly asked if we were all going to bed soon. We told her that it wasn’t late, and we were visiting (it was only 5pm). She returned to the bedroom in a huff.

A little later we heard 4 knocks. Someone at the door? No. Must have been Grandma knocking on the wall, to remind us to be quiet. That was my cue…I decided it was time to take her home. The kids left, and I went to get Gram up to take her. When I found her awake in bed, I said “Come on, Gram, let’s go home.” She pulled the blanket up to her chin, and refused to get up. I asked again and she yelled at me that she WAS NOT GOING ANYWHERE. OK, then. I left the bedroom.

I returned a few minutes later to try again. That usually works, right? Not so much. I got the same angry reaction, with additional comments about how rude I was to awaken her in the middle of the night to tell her she had to get out of her own house. Much coaxing, much yelling and a call for help to her son followed. My uncle came to the house to join the conversation…which was quickly escalating to a very angry episode.

Now, I remembered previous discussions with Gram when she was in this state of mind. I have even written about them here. I knew that nothing was going to change her mind right now. But I did not have the choice to simply let her sleep the night and awaken in a different mood. I had to get her back to her home. Mom, Dad and my uncle were getting upset as Gram said some really awful things to them. Leaving her there for the night was not an option. We managed to get her out of bed and to the living room, but it took a good hour of arguing to finally get her in her jacket and to the car.

There was silence for the 20 minute drive back to the home. Music didn’t help. Familiar sites did not catch her attention. She was clearly still angry, although she probably didn’t remember why. As we pulled into the parking lot of the home, she seemed calmer. As we walked towards the building, she seemed a little relieved. I took her to her room, got her in her nightgown, and she calmly let me tuck her in for the night. As I kissed her forehead, she thanked me and said goodnight…Gram was back to the sweet lady I know.

As I thought about the incident that night, I realized that times have changed. Five hour visits are not realistic anymore. Familiar places become her home, and transitions are difficult. Had we just gone for dinner, it would have been lovely. Had we heard “I’m tired” and taken that as the cue to leave instead of letting her nap, we would have been fine. Why did we fall back into that trap of trying to reason with someone who can no longer reason? We know better, but still tried to make her understand time and place in a moment when she could not understand them.

Will we get to learn from this lesson? Will we have another Christmas with her? That’s probably the part that is the hardest. We don’t know, and that’s what makes us sad. What may have been her last Christmas with us ended badly. My mom’s heart broke just a little again. Dementia is a long goodbye. And it’s a sad goodbye. Things don’t always go as planned.

But as I reflect on Christmases past, I only remember the good parts. The smiles, the hugs, the joy at giving or receiving just the right gift. I don’t remember the spills or the arguments, but surely those things happened too…they just aren’t remembered as time goes by. So I will take this Christmas, if it is to be our last with Gram, and I will remember the smiles as she saw the babies. I will remember her delight at tasting Mom’s fudge. I will remember her calm as I tucked her in bed at last. And I will forget the 2 hours in between. I don’t have room in my memory banks for that stuff…life is too precious.

Merry Christmas, Gram.