The Double-Edged Sword of Dementia

She walked to the bank the last Friday of every month to deposit her social security check. She’d been doing it on her own for a long time, since her husband of 49 years died of a brain tumor ten years back. She folded the check in half then put it in her wallet, in the zippered part, then clicked her wallet shut and put it in her pocketbook. After securing the purse strap on her shoulder, Grandma put her navy peacoat on, over her handbag to hide it, and left her one bedroom apartment on Hobart Street in the heart of L.A.

Every so often if I was in town I’d join Grandma on her monthly walk. We were never particularly close. She’d always been contentious, but she once had a quick wit and delivered it with sharp humor, both of which left her years ago, as did the radiant beauty she once possessed. Conversations were now limited to her endless list of complaints—physical, familial, social. Visiting was always a chore, but she was all the extended family either of us had. And family is family.

Her bank was on the corner of Wilshire and Vermont, a particularly noisy, crowded intersection of two major thoroughfares, but Grandma was use to the hustle and bustle. She was a city girl—from Manhattan first, lived above a candy/soda fountain shop she ran with her husband. She and my granddad followed their daughter to California and rented the flat on Hobart Street, locally known as the Miracle Mile District. She’d lived there for the last 45 years, took no vacations and never traveled beyond the L.A. area.

We walked down her quiet street of whitewashed art deco apartments at a hurried pace with purpose. And she was fast, especially for an 87 year old woman who stood a mere 4 feet 9 inches tall. It was generally difficult to keep up with her. But on this particular Friday when we turned off her quiet corner onto Wilshire Blvd., Grandma startled, and stopped, clearly confused.

I practically ran into her. My intrusion into her space brought her back to the present. She scolded me for not paying attention and we were on our way again. Her pace was slower now, more cautious, and I knew something was wrong but couldn’t figure out what. I suggested we go back to her place to get my car and I’d drive her to the bank. By the tone of her refusal it was clear she didn’t care for my implication she was unable to manage on her own.

She picked up her pace so I hurried alongside her in silence the rest of the way to the bank. Grandma opened the glass door, took a few steps inside and stopped dead. I stood panting beside her as she stared around the large, brightly lit space—at the tellers behind the long counter, the desks of the managers and sales reps across the way. She took on this horrified expression, brought her hand to her mouth as if to stifle a scream, and her eyes filled with tears that slid down her face when she blinked.

I was taken aback. I’d never seen my grandmother cry, not even at her husband’s funeral. She was a hard woman.

“I have no idea where I am, or why I’m here,” she whispered, clearly shamed. “I know I’m losing my mind. I can feel it but I can’t stop it.” Then she looked away, out the wall of windows at the crowded intersection beyond.

My mom/her daughter, had been telling me for months that Grandma was losing it. Her normally sharp tongue was telling tales of things that never happened, my mom warned. She was hospitalized twice for taking too much medication because she’d forgotten she’d taken it earlier. Lacking the space and knowledge to care for her mother through end-of-life, my mom still struggled with the notion of putting her mother in an elder care facility.

Grandma stood in the middle of the bank crying, and I stood there gaping without a clue what to do. People started staring so I took her by the arm and led her to a chair by an empty desk. I knelt in front of her, held her hands in mine and told her to look at me. She did. Her gray eyes focused on mine and I saw the fear of old age in them. I spoke softly—told her where we were and why, and that we’d walked to the bank together.

Recognition filled her face but her gloom remained. She retrieved a Kleenex from the small travel pack she kept in her purse, dabbed her face and wiped her nose. She needed a minute before going to a teller window and depositing her check. For the life of her she couldn’t remember how to do the math required for the cash back she needed.

“I’m going crazy. I just know it.” She looked at me and I felt her begging me for salvation.

I gave her my pocket calculator, and while I taught her how to work it I reassured her she no longer needed simple math skills. We filled out her deposit slip together then checked the math with the machine at the teller window. Grandma slipped her $50 into the zippered part of her wallet then put it in her pocketbook and we were on our way.

Though I wanted to, I thought better of suggesting she stay at the bank and I go get my car. She seemed back to her old self, hustling along Wilshire Blvd. I paced her in silence back to her flat. Inside her own environment she seemed at ease. We watched her favorite soap opera and then she made us scrambled eggs with onions for a late lunch. I helped her with the dishes and left, making light of her dementia with senior moment jokes of how we all forget stuff, and feeling confident Grandma was going to be just fine.

I did not accompany her to the bank on the Friday a month later. When she got to the teller window and realized she’d lost the calculator I gave her, she panicked and became disoriented again. The teller was kind enough to call my mom, who came from the Valley to pick her up and drive her the half mile home. That afternoon, an hour or two after my mom left her, Grandma took three doses of Valium in less than an hour and ended up in the hospital getting her stomach pumped from the overdose.

Not too long after that my mother got a court order for legal custody of her mother. At first, when my grandmother was still lucid, she resented the hell out of her daughter’s authority, and the Home she was forced to reside in. When I’d pick her up for family functions she’d spend the entire ride slamming my mom. But within a few months, her anger gave way to wonder as the dementia took hold. Memories of her limited life experience were replaced by complex fantasies of exotic places she’d traveled, gala events she never attended, and interactions with famous people she’d never met.

Less than a year from the second bank incident my grandmother did not recognized her family, did not know me, or her own daughter, claimed she’d never had a child. Though my mother continued to visit her weekly for the next two years, Grandma never acknowledged she had a daughter. Pretending to be a visiting friend instead of her child took its toll on my mom, but my grandmother was none the wiser. She enjoyed the visits, became lighter, brighter than she’d ever been. She seemed happier since crossing the line of reality all the way. Her flat gray eyes filled with excitement when she told of her adventures on Safari in the jungles of Africa, or the time she did the Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary.

Her fantasies shielded her from harsh realities present and looming. At 89, her body and mind were shutting down, her time running out. She was on the fringe of life now, and almost invisible. Surely she felt it too. Perhaps so many old people lose their mind because the reality of their marginal existence is just too heavy to bear. Dementia was her reprieve. Insanity served her. But getting there—watching herself lose her own mind must have been hellish.

A few years after grandma passed, my mom died of cancer. She never lost her mind, was sentient to the bitter end. But my father is 84, and his sharp mind is clearly going. He repeats the same sentence several times. He slurs words, jumbles them, can’t find the right ones. He is on scores of medication for his heart, blood pressure, liver, and other vital organs shutting down with age. Once an articulate pontificator, my dad talks mostly of his many ailments now. He tries to assure me he’s ‘accepted his lot,’ living in a private apartment in Building One of the retirement Home he recently moved to in Washington, far from the California sunshine he loved, but nice, and affordable.

On the phone with him last Saturday, I heard the fear, the raw terror in his voice as he spoke of the terminal patients in Building Three of the Home. I sought words of wisdom to lighten his load but could think of none. My heart ached for him, missing him while he is still here. I wanted to save him, but know I can not. As I hung up the phone, as harsh as it seems, even to me, I wished for my father a speedy journey into a pleasant dementia.

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