As an Occupational Therapist, my background in neurology is more extensive than many, but that knowledge didn’t help much when my mother experienced Dementia.
I was accustomed to my patients improving, not deteriorating, and following a relatively predictable progression through therapy. Not so much with Alzheimer’s.
My mother’s first family-witnessed incident of confusion (indicative of Dementia) occurred in February 2005. Mom had always wanted to visit Sedona, Arizona where her nephew Mike lived. The first day she was there, however, my cousin Mike alerted me that, “Aunt Betty thinks she’s in Michigan. She asked this morning where her room was.”
To be honest, I remember feeling annoyed that Mike should even be concerned. After all, my mother had buried her husband and son less than a year earlier. She was entitled to stress related confusion I reasoned. Only it wasn’t just grief warping her recollection that she had just flown three hours from Michigan to Arizona; it was a waving red flag indicator of Dementia and I missed it.
Of course there were more incidents, emerging slowly but with increasing frequency and seriousness. My Math major mom seemed baffled balancing her checkbook and giddy when she “discovered” Sudoku puzzles had multiple solutions.
Her once meticulous apartment started to look like an episode of Hoarders. She accused people of stealing the most bizarre things, the homes-for-sale section of the newspaper, a nail file, her brown pants, “seven dollars worth of stamps” and more.
Mom’s bright persona waned as she took on sinister tones of paranoia and accused her financial planner of electronically forging her signature.
My mother’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s was very rapid spanning only a few years. She experienced a psychotic episode, illusions and a visual hallucination of her mother that eventually led to a Houdini-like escape from a secure assisted living facility in order to “take care of” her mom!
The Mysterious Neurology of Alzheimer’s
But the most bewildering series of events indicative of Mom’s increasing memory issues laced with repetitive organization was in October 2009. To this day, I cannot explain or comprehend how she did what she did.
My mom admitted to getting seriously lost driving just a few blocks to her dentist; in fact, she ended up two counties and twenty miles away but thankfully somehow made it home without incident. Simultaneous to this, she was trying to renew her car insurance. As we lived two-hours apart, I attempted to help her via email but eventually drove over to handle it.
Mom greeted me with her warm smile proclaiming that she had successfully renewed her insurance. “Great Mom. Did you get your proof of insurance certificate yet?”
Her bubble instantly burst as I saw her increasingly familiar facial expression of complete bewilderment. She camouflaged her confusion with “I don’t know.” I had come to recognize this reply as the profound truth; she really didn’t know!
I looked around the scattered onslaught of envelopes, church bulletins and newspapers. “Well, if it’s here, I’ll find it” as I started sorting through the unopened mail and quickly came upon one marked Citizen’s Insurance. Violà! But what I thought would be her certificate was a bill.
Puzzled, I called the local office and learned from the manager Sandy that Mom had written several checks, but the amounts weren’t correct and none of them had the account number written on them.
“Actually, Elaine,” Sandy said, “your mom has written nine checks.”
“Nine! Nine? Really! She wrote nine checks?” I was stunned. I logged into her bank account on my laptop and quickly confirmed that Mom had indeed written nine checks over a two-week period. Five of the checks were written on consecutive days.
And therein lies the real mystery. How did my mother, how could anyone, have the presence of mind to write out nine checks, manually address and stamp envelopes and drop them into the mail slot, five on consecutive days, but couldn’t remember that she had already done that!
She wrote out nine checks because she couldn’t remember writing even one. How incredibly bizarre! Considering the near flawless execution and sequence of actions, it really is a mystery.
- Although the amounts for her premium(s) were incorrect, they were surprisingly consistent varying by less than $55.00. Somehow she was able to recall or find, or both, the approximate amount due even if she got the specific amount wrong.
- At best Mom had two, maybe three, return address envelopes for Citizen’s Insurance. Therefore she would have needed to hand-write a minimum of six envelopes some of which made it to the main office in New York and some to the local office in Michigan.
- Each envelope was then stuffed, sealed, addressed, stamped and placed in the outgoing mail slot in her complex. This is a multi-sequential task that Mom repeated successfully nine times, five on consecutive days! And yet she couldn’t remember having done it even once.
My mother died over two years ago in July 2011. Even as I continue to expand my networking with other caregivers and professionals who also have unbelievable-were-they-not-true stories to share, this drama continues to mystify me.
I have come to understand, neurologically speaking anyway, the predictable unpredictability of Alzheimer’s. Collectively we need to be more cognizant of out-of-character behaviors in others; and I use the term very broadly.
You know when someone you know is acting differently. Don’t dismiss the early warning signs of Dementia.
If all you can do is what you can do, then at least do that!
September is World Alzheimer’s Month. Across the globe, 35 million people and their families are affected by dementia. It’s going to take all of us to change these numbers. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association for three easy ways you can get involved and help end Alzheimer’s.