I couldn’t help but notice. One of the members of our tour group in Spain, a man in his mid-seventies, was shuffling and staring a head blankly while holding his wife’s hand. Ah, I recognized the signs all too well.
Oddly though, his wife looked like I remembered my mother in her active and vigorous earlier years – a blond thin woman with a nervous demeanor who would chat incessantly to anyone and everyone. I had the sense that the wife had a great ability to handle any situation. My mother in her prime did, too, before her mind got murky.
Our group did a lot of discoveries on foot, and it was while walking on the streets of Valencia that I saw the man being pushed along and talked to like a child. It irked me.
I wondered why he would be on a three-week international trip, until an occupational therapist in our midst said that maybe the couple was having their last vacation and we should honor it.
Most of the other group members didn’t take a lot of interest in discussing the pros and cons of traveling with someone with Alzheimer’s, and they let it go.
Each situation and person is different depending upon how long they have been dealing with this most difficult group of diseases. In my mom’s case, it was hard enough to take her out of the safety of her house and its predictable routine for a visit to the doctor.
I would try getting mom interested in something – “Look, there’s the neighbor boy riding his bike in the circular driveway. He’s waving.” - or, “I saw your good friend from church at the supermarket –you know, the lady that sits in front of you every Sunday.” - and it would not receive as little as a nod of her head.
The empty look in her eyes. The wringing of her hands. It could unnerve me to no end when a tiny thought would come out of her that had no relevance whatsoever to the conversation at hand.
In Spain the wife would let go of her husband’s hand on and off and not be the protective one. He would walk along somewhere in our group of thirty-five people.
He kept at our pace and never lagged behind, although it became quite common to hear one voice or another rise through the crowd, “Where’s Mel?”
Someone would send an assuring comment back that they had him in sight, or often their arm would be linked with his, and we were all somewhat relieved. The more we all bonded as a group, the more we took turns with Mel.
My chance came one evening quite unexpectedly. When I was strolling with the man back from dinner, he started talking animatedly with a different inflection to his speech. There was vibrancy to his overall appearance.
He lived in the Bronx as a graduate student while his wife worked to help him through. They would try and see as many Broadway plays as possible on their limited budget, and he loved the excitement of the Great White Way. Was I imagining it, or was I detecting a click of his heels?
I went along with the man’s exuberant conversation assuming it was probably in the 1960s when he was young and vigorous. He broke into strains of “Lullaby of Broadway” and sang it to me softly all the way back to the hotel.
At the front door, he looked at me and asked if he could kiss me on the cheek before we parted. “Of course.” It was sweet and endearing.
I broke down and sobbed that night in my bed. My mother lost all the affection she had when dementia invaded, and she had no desire to have any physical contact. I was brushed away numerous times. Even though she was on medication, she would be quite negative with her caregivers, too, and crawl into her own world.
Our tour group was careful not to talk between ourselves as if Mel wasn’t present. “I hear you,” he said softly on and off in a monotonous tone, and it reminded us to preserve his dignity and not be rude.
I only hope Mel’s road trip will go through as many green lights as possible, and when he gets to his final destination, he will be singing, “New York, New York.” Perhaps, my mom will be playing the piano for him, her nail polish glowing on her fingertips.
Life throws in cautionary yellow lights and full stop red ones on our journeys, reminding us how to harmonize and blend with grace what is set out for us.
Let us honor those struggling with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as the important role of caregivers in their quality of life.