In the course of our lives Joan has taught me many things, as one would expect from a devoted mother. However, my greatest lessons have come in recent years. As time has changed us both, the role of mother has fallen away and we have become friends. She, my friend who forgets, and I, her friend who knows. I am uncertain as to when or how our relationship transformed. But transform it did, and acceptance of my new status has been integral to understanding her experience.
Facial recognition is faulty at best. She does not always see her daughter when she looks at me. Her brain has re-associated me as a friend, and oddly, one friend in particular. A woman her age, who is also a widow and her long-time neighbor from Almaden. Perhaps we became connected as one person because we both evoke a sense of familiarity and we share the same name, Diane.
Joan often introduces me to people as, “my good friend and neighbor, Diane”. I smile back and say, “Hello.” My face, she may or may not know, but my name she remembers. I am grateful for this small fragment of memory, even if it is neurologically linked to the wrong person.
When Joan and I are together, she rarely sees her daughter anymore. Most often, she encounters a very good friend who knows her preferences and needs in an almost supernatural way. She says to me, “It is nice to have a friend who knows me so well.” “Yes, a special friend indeed,” I respond.
Joan does not know where she is in location or time and she may or may not recognize the faces of loved ones. Yet she remains very much herself in many ways. She continues to seek a purpose and expects those around her to, “make themselves useful.” Always self-sufficient and independent, she remains imperiously in charge of what she will and will not do at any given moment. Once very practical, she has developed lapses in judgement. She seeks to go home, looking for her parents or her long deceased husband. If allowed, she would walk for miles seeking that which she will not find.
When I arrive to visit, her eyes rest on my face, I watch as she assesses me for a brief moment before her face lights up with joy and recognition. She remembers in her heart that we are close, that she can trust me, that we have fun together. She greets me as she always has, with an all encompassing hug, a twinkle in her eye and a chuckle. She does not reveal any confusion as to who I am as she stands up from her seat and says, “let’s go for a walk.”
Visiting Joan is usually as much fun for me as it is for her. There are plenty of activities we continue to enjoy together in a relationship that remains rich and fulfilling in spite of her progressing disease. Although her attention and abilities fluctuate, she continues to enjoy walking in the redwoods, listening to poetry, chatting about family and friends. It does not matter to me, that she forgets things, asks to hear a story again, or gets up to go look for somebody who is not here. I enjoy what she can track and I don’t mind repeating myself. In fact, it normalizes her to chatter about family and friends, even if some have passed away.
As we walk through the park talking about my brother and sister, Joan asks, “How is Diane? I haven’t seen her for a long time.” I respond with, “Diane is well, and she will be seeing you next week.” When I return, days later, she greets me with great joy she holds me in her arms and looks right into my eyes saying, “oh, I haven’t seen you in such a long time!” “It’s nice to see you too mom,” is all I need to say.
Any way you look at it, Life is difficult with Alzhiemer’s. Even so, Joan’s journey has taught me tremendous lessons in communication, adaptability, acceptance, humility, love and honoring elders. My greatest learning? The difficulties in communicating with a person with Alzheimer’s are challenging, to be sure, but the same challenges are present in communication with anybody, it is only a matter of degree.
Most importantly though, I am learning gratitude. I am grateful that I can and want to be present for her. I have Gratitude for every precious moment we enjoy together; even as I carry the burden of knowledge that the window to the life of my mother and my friend, is rapidly closing.
Alzheimer’s may have taken away my mother, but has gifted me a friend.
A dignified Life: The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care : a Guide for Family Caregivers The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care (Bell & Troxel.