In the "Doghouse" with dementia

One of my first experiences with dementia

I was definitely in the doghouse with dementia.  Before I understood this disease, my mom was caring for my husband’s grandmother, while we were building our elderly residential care home with the goal of her eventually living there. She had started exhibiting bizarre behaviors and could no longer live safely alone.

One day I received a distress call, would I come to help with grandma for the afternoon? My mom was feeling really sick and exhausted.  Of course I would help. It would be fun hanging out with funny grandma. Sometimes we would find her lying on the ground and when we would bend over and try to help her up she’d try to poke our eyes with two fingers in a claw, we called them “snake fangs”.

Before she moved in with my mom, she lived alone in an apartment at a supported-living senior community. But as her confusion advanced, she accused more and more people of stealing her valuables and it became difficult to find helpers. We usually found the “missing” items wrapped in layers of toilet paper and stuffed in the toe of a shoe or some such “safe” place.

As I pulled up, grandma was stumbling around the front yard, clutching her purse under one arm and grasping the posts of the fence with her other hand as she followed it side-stepping back and forth across the property.
Cheerfully, I crossed the yard and invited her to come back inside out of the heat.

In that moment, I became an unwitting participant in a fearful frenzy of feeling lost and disoriented in a strange land surrounded by unfamiliar places and faces. Back and forth and back and forth we paced with grandma clinging to the fence posts and my clinging to grandma tripping over the uneven ground. Each plea to come into the house…for a drink…to eat lunch…to sit for a moment…to answer a phone call…was not only rejected but met with increasing agitation.

For several hours this manic march continued with both of us becoming dehydrated and exhausted. Each time I attempted to “help” her back into the house by pulling her arm or prying her hands from the fence, I was scratched and slapped and kicked and screamed at and she would try to run away or quickly re-clutch the fence in her death grip.

Finally, I started to pay closer attention to her mutterings and attempted to enter her “reality”. She was frantic to find the bus stop to get a ride back to her house. Telling a bold-faced lie, I pointed to the side of our house and suggested we look for the bus stop a little further “down the street”. To my great surprise and relief she immediately let go of the fence and walked with me toward the “bus stop” (which was the very house I had been attempting to take her back to for hours now).

Her eyesight was poor and she walked with one hand stretched out to feel her way. The minute she felt the brick, her shoulders sagged and she visibly relaxed and said “oh I’m home”.  She swept the side of the wall, her fingers fanning the bricks as we walked down the driveway.  As we reached the end of the pavement, she turned to a door into the detached garage, opened it, and immediately began undressing as she walked into the dusky interior saying she was going to take a nap.

Before I could stop her, she handed me her dress and lay down in just her slip onto a pile of stinky blankets that we used for a dog bed.  Torn between feeling guilty that I had somehow allowed this and relieved that I could finally sit down and get out of the heat, I looked out of the garage and was horrified to see my in-laws walking up the driveway to visit their mother!

How in the world could I explain why grandma was half-dressed lying on a mangy dog pile in a dirty old garage?

Luckily for me, her son (a physician) understood just how crazy dementia really is and when he saw what had happened he laughed so hard he had to wipe the tears from his eyes.

Relieved, I got a clean blanket and covered grandma and we let her finish her nap and due to her dementia, she never remembered.

(Written by Christina a senior care consultant with Senior Partners).

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