From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.
“You’re never going to guess what your grandmother did today,” my mom said, sounding all flustered and out of breath, as soon as I answered my cell phone.
After living with my grandma for over a year, I knew better than to try and guess. My experiences had taught me that every time I thought I had seen it all, my grandmother would out-do herself with something completely original. Incidents like shoplifting or throwing all old family videos in the garbage simply cannot be predicted or guessed, but I’ll leave that for another story.
“You’re right, Mom. What did she do?”
“She walked all the way to the salon by herself. By herself! JoAnn at the front desk called me right after she showed up and insisted that she had an appointment. Can you believe she did that?”
“Yes and no…”
As soon as I got off the phone with my mom I used my Google maps app to look up the distance between my grandma’s house and the salon. Depending on which route she took (she couldn’t recall), she either walked a distance of 2.96 or 3.04 miles. Almost a 5K.
I was mostly shocked that my grandma decided to step out and attempt to do anything outdoors, especially in the sweltering summer heat. She had always been an indoor person who hated to sweat-it didn’t mix well with her Estee Lauder perfume and thick coat of hairspray- or expose her fair, Scandinavian skin to the sun.
Although she was always thin, she is probably the most un-athletic person I’ve ever met. While my other grandmother rode bicycles and took us to waterparks as kids, Grandma Betty had never even learned how to swim. She was much better at taking us shopping or to the dog track to watch the greyhounds race, sitting indoors every time of course.
I doubt my grandma ever walked three miles at a time in her life, and now here she was at 79 years old, crossing town by foot. According to JoAnn, she wasn’t even enervated or disoriented when she arrived at the salon. My grandma walked in that door alert and coherent, except for the fact that she was absolutely convinced it was Friday and she had an appointment.
“They knew I had an appointment to get my hair done but nobody came to pick me up, so I got here myself,” she told JoAnn.
“Thank goodness we hid the car keys from her months ago,” I said to my mom as she told me the story through the phone.
JoAnn had been a receptionist at the salon for almost as long as the women in my family had been getting our hair and nails done there, so she knew my grandma’s story and how to properly handle the situation. She got my grandma a bottle of cold water, had her take a seat, and then she called my mom to inform her of what had just happened.
While my grandma’s little 5K journey was taking place, I was in New York City visiting my cousins and enjoying a much-needed vacation. Before I left, my mom and I discussed how my grandma really couldn’t be left alone for more than a few hours at a time. There were just too many little things that could go wrong; things that couldn’t be predicted or prepared for.
By this point all of the electrical appliances in her kitchen had to be either hidden or left unplugged. We plugged in the same type of outlet safety covers as parents of small children- and thankfully my grandma’s arthritis prevented her from being able to yank them out. The covers were purchased after she put a bag of popcorn in the microwave for 43 minutes and forgot about it after about five and a half. Thank goodness I was home at the time and smelled it and was able to save the kitchen (and house) from burning down. Any time something like that happened, there was a little voice in the back of my mind asking, “What if I hadn’t been there?”
There was always a small knot of anxiety that formed in my stomach when I drove home after work, a night out with friends, or any occasion where I knew that my grandma had been left alone for more than a few hours. I never knew what I might find when I walked in the door. My mom knew it was bad, but when she came by each day in the morning and afternoon, I was usually around, or at least not gone for too long. My grandmother was also quite nocturnal- she did most of her sleeping during the day, so my mom would often come in to find her in bed. However, when I’d come home at 3 a.m., I’d find her running a large load of laundry with only one pair of shorts in the washer, or she’d tell me a wild story about how little kids were just knocking at her door. The air conditioner temperature was often set to either 60 degrees or 80 degrees. When she was hot she’d flip the switch all the way to the left, and once the house became frigid she’d turn the a/c completely off. Every once in a while she’d get confused and turn on the heat, which was the worst thing to wake up to in the middle of a summer night. Either way, the temperature in her house was always one extreme or the other when she was left in charge.
“Grandma’s like a big five year old,” I’d tell my mom. “You wouldn’t leave a five year old home alone, would you?”
Since the day I moved in with my grandma and learned first-hand what Alzheimer’s was, my mother had been in a bit of denial about her illness. I know she believed me when I told her what was taking place, but she was the last to be able to admit that there was a problem, and that it was gradually getting worse. I knew it couldn’t be easy to watch your mother/best friend of almost 50 years become a total stranger, so a part of me didn’t want to press the issue in a way that was too harsh and upsetting to my mom. But on the other hand, I was terrified of the danger my grandma was in every minute we weren’t with her.
My grandma wandering out of her house and all the way to the hair salon was just another example of why she couldn’t be left alone. Although I had read up on dementia and Alzheimer’s-related safety concerns and learned that six in 10 people with these memory issues will wander at some point, it was not something I thought we’d have to worry about with her. That day it became more clear that my grandma was not the person she once was- she was now just another Alzheimer’s patient. Although it sounds awful to refer to her as that, it was important to for safety’s sake.
Another thing I thought my grandma wouldn’t do, based on her sweet personality, was ever get violent. But she was no longer herself, so we had to assume that she might at some point, and do whatever we could to prevent it. Out went the knives and anything else that she could hurt herself or others with. To this day my grandma has never gotten violent, but I slept better each night knowing that there was no chance that either one of us would accidently be stabbed.
The lesson I learned the day my grandma wandered was to take every common dementia and Alzheimer’s-related behavior that you read about seriously. Don’t assume that your mom, dad, or loved one won’t do something because it’s out of character, or not like them. Unfortunately they are no longer really themselves, and although it’s difficult to predict what they might do, it is possible to prevent some disasters.