“It’s a long way to walk from Tel Aviv,” Mom said on the phone. “Should we pick you up? Here, talk to Daddy.”
I called, as I do every week, when I was on the sherut, the shared taxi that travels from the Tel Aviv bus station to Netanya. It usually takes 30 minutes and gets me right into the center of Netanya’s bustling city.
How telling that one short conversation was.
“It’s a long way to walk from Tel Aviv,” I repeated to Daddy when he took the receiver. We both laughed, and I could hear Mom giggling in the background. She obviously knew she had said something funny, but couldn’t figure out why. Her concept of travel and of distances is just gone. Several times she asked me where I lived, and whether I had to go through customs to get home. When I clarified (for the third or fourth or maybe fifth time) that the journey was only 2 ½ hours, she seemed puzzled, but happy for me that it wasn’t longer.
The fact that she had quickly passed the phone to my father indicated another recent loss: Mom is more and more unsure of the social norms of interaction. She is more ready to delegate decisions to her caregivers rather than try to make them on her own.
“Normal is just a setting on your dryer,” said a friend who is a social worker. When I recounted some of the funny things Mom has done, like hiding her handbag under her pillow or making a sandwich with humus and grapefruit slices, this woman, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, reiterated the idea that caring for someone with Alzheimer’s means throwing all our definitions of “normal” out the window.
Should we have let her eat the sandwich? The grapefruit slices still had their rinds on them, and if she had been in her right mind she would not have eaten it.
Ah, but it is her right mind. It’s her only mind, and her perception of reality is different from ours.
Perhaps it’s all in the approach. Instead of yelling at her for doing something foolish, or chiding her on her inability to make a sandwich, we can point it out in a humorous way and suggest that grapefruits taste better on their own. We can give her the tools to fix her own sandwich by offering her a tomato or whatever it is that might go better with humus.
That’s the ideal. It takes an extraordinarily stable temperament to deal with an Alzheimer’s sufferer on a daily basis. Getting them up and dressed in the morning can be filled with hurdles. Sometimes Mom puts her shirt on inside out, or wears a thick winter sweater in the middle of summer. Or she forgets to brush her teeth. What works once to convince her to change might not work the next time. It is a constant game of give and take and trying new things.
Perhaps it’s really about how uncomfortable we are with the non-normative behavior Alzheimer’s patients exhibit. I can’t see myself letting Mom eat a grapefruit humus sandwich. But the world won’t stop if she refuses to brush her teeth. Our job is to take their lead and guide them to live with dignity, love, and happiness within societal norms. It can be pretty darn uncomfortable to wear your underwear backwards.
Waiting for me when I got home from Netanya, was a steaming bowl of the best pea soup I have ever tasted. Soup is actually one of the easier types of dishes to master. For a novice cook, as my father was, it can be as straightforward as throwing everything into the pot and letting it simmer. Allowing men into the kitchen surely has its advantages. My husband Jeff has agreed to let me share his recipe.
Thick and Tasty Pea Soup
This soup is so thick that it literally stands up in the bowl. It reminds me of the Campbell’s Chunky soup commercial: “so good you can eat it with a fork, but bring a spoon because you’ll want to get every drop.”
4 ½ cups dried split peas
11 cups water
2 onions chopped
6 cloves garlic chopped
2 cups celery (with leaves) chopped
3 large carrots sliced thinly on the diagonal
3 medium potatoes chopped
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes (800 grams)
4-5 whole bay leaves
4 tsp salt
1 tsp thyme
½ cup fresh parsley chopped
Coarse black pepper to taste
In a large pot, bring to boil split peas and water. As the contents begin to heat, add remaining ingredients. Once soup has boiled, simmer for up to four hours (the longer the better). Stir occasionally. Pea soup’s flavor can be enhanced by adding sliced beef or vegetarian kabanos to individual bowls.