As Alzheimer’s progresses and a person’s memory fades away, they start to think they are at an earlier time in their life. They might believe they are younger than they are or they might think they are living in a city from their childhood. My grandfather, Poppy, suffered from Alzheimer’s later in his life and when visiting him you never knew where in the world he might be that day.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s my grandparents lived all over the world because my grandfather worked for Exxon and was required to travel. They enjoyed the opportunity to explore new countries, cultures and cuisines. They lived in fascinating places like Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, just to name a few, and always took the time to learn the ways of life in those places. When I was growing up Poppy told me story after story of how he learned new languages and cultures while living over seas. I remember thinking how different the way of life in those places was compared to the life I knew in Texas. Years later when Poppy began to lose his memory, little did I know that those stories he told me when I was a kid would come in handy when communicating with him.
You never knew what you were going to get when visiting Poppy at the nursing home. Being the wisecrack that he was, visits were always entertaining and most of the time full of laughter. Some days were more challenging than others in that he would seem confused about his geographic location. I would have to feel out where he thought he was. He would say things like, “We need to run down to the market and pick up some fresh fish for your grandmother,” to which I would reply ” what market?” Then he would give me the name of a market from either Singapore or Malaysia or any other country he once lived in and I knew that day my visit would be a worldwide adventure. Instead of correcting him and telling him he was in Houston, Texas in a nursing home, I would ask him about his day at work or if he had learned any new factoid about that country’s culture. I always felt that correcting him would just confuse him more, or make him panic if in his mind he had never lived in Houston.
The first couple of times that I “traveled” with him to a different place, I would feel guilty as if I were treating him as a child. I remember talking with my mom about it one day and she pointed out to me that in those moments he clearly believed he was in another country, so why not jump on his bandwagon and join him for a day. This piece of advice ended up becoming my saving grace when visiting my grandfather during the end of his life. Whether he thought he was in Egypt or in his hometown of Philadelphia, I would always travel there with him as if we were really there. It wasn’t that I was treating him like a child and playing along with his imagination, I was living in HIS moment. And let me tell you, those moments in a far off distant place were some of the most captivating and educational snippets of time that I have ever spent with Poppy.
So I want to pass along my mother’s advice. Play along, travel with them, and live in their moments because you never know where you might end up. You could visit an exotic place like Malaysia or take a ride down memory lane to the street your loved one grew up on. It doesn’t matter where they believe they are, what matters is that you love them enough to pack your bags and take the adventure with them.