Monday, September 16, 2019

What my Grandma's Alzheimer's taught me

Yiayia (grandma in Greek) was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when she was about 79 years old. I was 18 at the time and had just finished school, and I was taking a gap year to work and travel as is common for Norwegian teenagers.

The early signs with yiayia

My mom began worrying when yiayia, a fantastic cook, started losing weight and reported daily that she had spaghetti for dinner. Around the same time, she difficulty in expressing herself. She had always been someone who could go on for hours, and all of a sudden, it was as if she had gone mute.

How our family handled it

Immediately after the diagnosis, my mom determined yiayia would come live with us in Norway. I think this was really hard on both of them. Having to take yiayia from the village she was born and raised in, to a foreign country. We were effectively robbing her of the chance to age at home.

I don't know how we could have handled this differently, given the lack of health care infrastructure in the village. Greece has for a long time had a failing economy with, and elderly care is not something you hear about often in the mainstream media. It's expected for the family to take care of their elderly.

In Norway, both my mom, my dad, and I were around and could help take care of her, so she didn't have to be alone. Still, nothing about this new situation was easy for any of us.

A few things I learned from taking care of my grandma

Watching the disease progress in a family member is difficult. I also learned a great deal about patience and how to handle myself with someone who was experiencing this type of mental decline.

Losing someone right in front of your eyes

The hardest part is seeing your loved one changing right in front of you. They start behaving and acting differently as they get confused and blend realities.

Play along with your loved ones reality

For example, my grandma would get dressed up and head for the door matter of factly stating, "I have to leave now." Even though she knew few outside the family, didn't speak the language and did not know how to get around. What do you do?

My advice is to not correct them or deny them doing what they have their heart set on as long as it's possible. Doing so will only embarrass them and possibly anger them too. Go along with their story, it agrees better with them.

And just so, I would leave the house with yiayia. We'd walk around the neighborhood until she got tired or remembered where we were and wanted to go home.

The highest cost of Alzheimer's is emotional

I also witnessed yiayia losing her ability to recognize us. Including my mom, her only daughter of four children. At times she thought I was her daughter and that my mom was a stranger who had broken into our house. I remember the heartache in my mom's voice as she tried to reason with yiayia.

My advice to you is to try and introduce yourself again. Your loved ones may remember you; however, there is also a chance they wonʼt.

You have to remember that it's not that your loved one is rejecting you, or that they don't care about you anymore, but they cannot recognize memories and feelings. Remember it's the illness and not a reflection of either of you or your relationship.

Longevity of the illness

Patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's rarely pass away due to the diagnosis itself. My grandma has lived with the illness for over 13 years.

In more ways than one, we are fortunate to still have her with us. Still, I can't help but wonder if it's the life I would want for myself, as she needs care 24/7.

The statistics tell us that sooner or later, we will all have someone in our close circle suffer from Alzheimer's. Still, it's hard to mentally prepare for such a thing. Instead, think about taking practical preventative steps.

Mon Tonton - community for senior wellness

At Mon Tonton we're working on connecting retirees with the elderly so they can help each other. For example, through companionship.

Are you interested in learning more? Join the waitlist here, and you'll be the first to know when Mon Tonton beta is ready!

Further reading

This is the third post in a series of posts on the topic of Alzheimer's. Links to the past posts below:

Topics: Alzheimersage at homeexpatswellnessmental healthfamilysenior care

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