Resolving a quandary – one communication success story with Alzheimer’s

One of Dad’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s was his inability to keep track of the days of the week.

Over two years ago, in July of 2009, I was driving to Dayton to visit my parents and I called to let them know I was on my way. Dad answered the phone.

“Are you going to go exercise today?” I asked him. Since he had been under the care of a cardiologist, he regularly went over to the monitored exercise facility at a nearby hospital.

“I don’t go on Sundays,” he said.

“It’s Wednesday,” I told him.

“Well, I’m not going anyway.”

I don’t know why my dad always thought it was Sunday. Maybe it was because he was raised by an extremely religious mother, and was a devout Catholic himself. The faith, the sacraments, attending Mass on Sunday morning, all those things were important to him.

This past Saturday Mark and I took dinner up to Mom and Dad to share with them. We were sitting around the kitchen table eating when Dad started making a motion with his hand over the wheel of his chair. I knew he wanted something but I didn’t know what. Mom and I both tried to ask him specific questions, but were unable to get to the bottom of it.

“Say what you what,” Mom said. “Maybe we should get the whiteboard out for him.”

“Maybe he needs a hankie,” Mom said noticing that his nose had started to run. I got one for him and that seemed to solve the problem. I also got the whiteboard and placed it on the table beside him.

Our conversation drifted to my memoir about Annie. I try not to bring Annie’s name up too much around Dad because it always makes him cry. But I had talked about the book at a nearby college class earlier in the day and I wanted to tell Mom about it.

Dad reached for the whiteboard and marker and started to write. “I” he wrote clearly. And then he wrote what looked like an “a” followed by what might have been multiple “m’s.” He was writing in cursive with small letters and a thick pen that all ran together. He also was not spacing the letters well and they were on top of each other. I had to watch the movement of his hand and try to guess the letter he was making.

“I am?” I asked.

He nodded. Then he continued to write what I was eventually able to decipher, with some effort, “in a. . .”

I had absolutely no clue what he wrote next. I guessed. Mom guessed. “You are in a what?” Mom asked. I asked Dad to print the letters really big. He wouldn’t. I started getting a sick, panicky feeling in my gut. What if I can’t figure out what he is trying to say? I thought. He was trying to communicate and I wasn’t able to understand. I got more desperate and tried to tease it out of him.

“Why don’t you say the word,” I suggested, “and I will spell it for you.” I think he got the joke, by the way he darted a look at me. My dad was always a big tease, and he could take what he could dish out.

All of a sudden, out of Dad’s mouth the word “quandary” came, clear as day. Jaw-dropping amazing. How did he manage to enunciate that word when he rarely speaks at all?

Uh oh, I thought. This was not going to be a simple “Pass the lima beans,” request.

“What are you in a quandary about?” I asked. Now I was really worried. Dad was upset, confused, or concerned about something and I might not be able to figure it out. We were talking about Annie, so I thought that it had something to do with her. “Write it down, Dad.”

“My daughter,” he wrote. “Which daughter?” I asked. “Are you in a quandary about Annie?” He nodded. Then I started to sweat. We had been at this for what seemed like an hour, although I suspect it was only several minutes. I started making guesses. I was afraid he didn’t remember that Annie had died.

“Are you wondering where Annie is?” He shook his head. “You remember that she died, and she’s gone now?” He nodded and began to cry. “What is it that you’re worried about?” Then I added, “You don’t have to worry about her now. She’s happy. She’s in heaven.”

He went back to the whiteboard and wrote something that looked like “Did a prt” and I eventually deciphered as “Did a priest,”

“Are you worried that she didn’t receive her Last Rites?” I asked. He nodded. The weight of the world dropped off my shoulders.

“She did, Dad. I was there. Mom and I both were there. Father Meyer came to the hospital early one morning and celebrated the Anointing of the Sick with us for Annie.”

“I told you about it, Jerry,” Mom said. “I hope you remember this time.”

Pulling threads of intelligible communication out of the Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles of Dad’s once-sharp brain was like wringing a drop of water out of a stone-dry sponge. But we got there. Thankfully, we did.

24 thoughts on “Resolving a quandary – one communication success story with Alzheimer’s”

  1. Aw..I am so glad you were able to give him some peace of mind—-even if it does not last very long and he may not remember it tomorrow at least in that moment you were able to give him the gift of peace of mind about Annie’s Last Rites. Sweet story, Christine.

    1. Your link is a beautiful and related story, that’s how I continue to feel, (although at this point Dad still knows who I am). I’m going to appreciate that as long as it lasts.

  2. I feel for you & your mother. My great aunt lived with my grandmother (her sister) for years. She died after my grandmother had her strokes and lost so much of herself. My grandmother didn’t have Alzheimers, but she did have some significant impairments from the strokes.

    My aunt (her daughter) and I went through a long, long time of Grandma not remembering that her sister died. We couldn’t say she was still alive as Grandma would start looking for her, but when we said she died, Grandma would start crying.

    It was hard watching her grieve from scratch over and over. I’m not sure if she eventually remembered or if she gave up. It was hard to tell.

    1. That’s what I was afraid of. That must have been so hard for all of you. I felt for a while like Dad was in the cycle of grieving as if Annie had just died a week or two ago. Several months after she died, he told someone that he lost his “girl” two weeks ago. The grief seemed very fresh for a long time. I worried it was always going to be. But I think he’s moved past that a bit.

      My great aunt died the following year after Annie did, however, and Dad still thinks she’s alive.

      1. It was hard. I’ve shared it with you to let you know you’re not alone in experiencing this and that’s there no single right answer or right way to handle it, even from time to time. I’m not sure which was worse, Grandma crying for her sister or Grandma looking everyone for her sister to appear. They’d spent over 2/3 of their life living together and it was hard for Grandma to be left alone, especially since her speech and movement was so impaired.

        As I recall, Annie’s death was around the beginning of the Alzheimer’s, so it must have made it into the long-term memory. Unfortunately, your great aunt’s death did not.


  3. CM,

    What a wonderful story and how very wonderful it is that your parents have a daughter such as you. I too take care of my parents at times, and sometimes it is so hard to watch things they are going through as they age. Thank you for post. God Bless, SR

  4. I noticed your feeling of inadequacy to meet your father’s needs, and I do so relate with it. Sometimes I know I have communicated with my husband, and other times I have to rely on hugs and other gestures of love. He is unable to speak, one result of his stroke, which complicates his Alzheimer’s. Once in a while he is able to speak. We had just finished lunch and I had put away the food. I asked him if he wanted to go to bed or wait up for Gucci (I ask him questions, even if I don’t expect an answer.). He looked at me and said plainly, “I’m still hungry.” Ha! Yes, sir! I brought out more food. Blessings to you, Christine…

    1. Your husband’s ability to speech sounds about like my dad’s. Every now and then he’ll come out with something and it’s almost shocking. I find it both a delight and unsettling at the same time.

      Blessings back to you.

  5. I felt your pain in this attempt at communication. I lost a dear sister-in-law to Lou Gehrig’s disease, and remember the struggle well.

  6. Awww Christine… my heart goes out to you and your Dad and your family… this is such a dreadful disease … I was so pleased you were able to make your Dad at ease again… we can only hope that they do not feel the frustration we feel as they try to remember.. But those moments of recognition and when the penny drops are gems ..
    love and Blesssings xxx


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: