When in Doubt, Sing
Mom’s sister, my Auntie Barbara, is visiting from London. It is great to see her. She is a wild, funny, woman with strong opinions and a quirky view of the world. She is always laughing, a real glass-half-full personality. When they were younger, she and my mom had a close, loving relationship. Even though they’ve lived apart most of their adult lives, they’ve always been in touch and visited each other when they can.
Mom understands what a sister is supposed to be: someone you share with and are inordinately close to; someone you love unconditionally. In fact, when she and I are together, Mom often calls me by her sister’s name. What she doesn’t understand is that the woman staying in her apartment—the cheery woman who greets her in the mornings and makes great efforts to engage her—is her real sister.
In a recent article from The Washington Post,* author Susan Berger quotes a director of dementia care at an assisted living facility as categorizing friends and relatives of Alzheimer’s patients into three groups:
Those who get it immediately. They understand that the person with Alzheimer’s has a different reality and they need to “get into their world” and adjust their conversation accordingly.
Those who don’t understand initially but learn that it is easier to agree than to argue.
Those who don’t get it. They fight with the person and argue instead of realizing that they need to fix the way they interact.
I believe that I fall into the first category. Yes, it is difficult to accept Mom’s alternative ever-morphing view of the universe, but for the most part, I “adjust accordingly” and can converse with Mom at her level. We sing nursery rhymes together; we pet small dogs; we dance across the living room; and we laugh as much as possible.
My dad falls into the second category. I often point out that he is on the front lines of this illness with Mom. He is with her on a constant basis, through all the strange and convoluted dialogue she invents to try and carry on a conversation. He can be forgiven for wanting his spouse to be the person she was, to have fought a battle to bring her back to his world but to eventually have learned that this is a war he will lose. He has recognized the limitations of the situation and has changed his ways.
My Aunt Barbara? I would say that she is somewhere between the second and third categories. She knows what is happening to her beloved sister. She does get it, and she is heartbroken. The cherished sister of her childhood no longer exists. Barbara cannot reconcile Mom’s Alzheimer’s-induced personality with the intelligent, engaging woman Mom used to be. Barbara is not yet ready to accept that in order to earn Mom’s trust—in order to engage her fully—she has to adjust the way they interact.
Barbara reminded me of the advice I gave her to try to reach Mom: When in doubt, sing. I have childhood memories of listening to them in the kitchen as they slaved over a full sink of dirty dishes, their voices filling the house with joy. Often, when I am with Mom, I introduce a specific song to soothe or distract her. It doesn't work every time, but it often has the desired effect.
It is hard and disheartening to think of and treat Mom like a simple person. But that is what she has become. Alzheimer’s has robbed us of her rich, intelligence, though we do not love her any less than we did before.
To keep our eyesight sharp in order to see the beauty of Mom as she is now, we should eat lots of carrots. These root vegetables are rich in beta-carotene, a naturally occurring pigment that nourishes the eye. If you’ve got an overabundance of carrots in the fridge, this soup is for you.
What makes this soup zing is the refreshing taste of lemon and ginger.
10-12 carrots, sliced (about 5 cups)
2 leeks, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
6-8 cups water
1 carrot grated (for garnish)
1½ tsp ginger (if fresh, finely sliced)
Salt and pepper to taste
Zest of one lemon
Sauté garlic, onion and leeks in a soup pot until translucent and beginning to brown. Add carrots, half of the zest, and spices. Add water and bring to a boil then simmer for one hour. Let cool. Blend soup in the pot with a hand blender. Garnish each bowl with grated carrots and remaining zest.
*“What’s the best way to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s?” by Susan Berger, The Washington Post, May 30, 2016.