When my mother first began repeating herself, over and over, in conversation, I felt embarrassed. Lisette Berglund Hyde, at 90 years old, was still baking her own bread, serving lunch on a little table covered with an embroidered linen tablecloth, walking a mile downtown and back every day to her apartment in a senior citizen building in Portsmouth, NH. Possessed of a formidable intellect and an equally intimidating presence, at least for us, her twin daughters, she was the person you didn’t challenge, didn’t question.
I thought something was wrong. I didn’t know it was Alzheimer’s.
When I look back on those early days, those early phone conversations with my sister about our mother’s changing behavior, I think of us as a family on a path. A path of illness and suffering, to be sure, but also a path of discovery, a path of healing as well as loss.
What would I do if that lunch with my mother had happened yesterday, instead of 13 years ago? What if I could be there again, watching her in her rocking chair in front of her window, listening as she told and retold the same story?
One thing I would tell myself is that this moment is real, that I’m right to be concerned about this new behavior, that as Lisette’s family member it is quite reasonable for me to want to consult somebody, to call her doctor. Indeed, after a month or so, my sister and I did take action: we called her doctor and made an appointment with him at which we discussed her lapses of memory, her confusion, the dishes that weren’t being cleaned properly, the unwrapped chicken that was drying out in her refrigerator.
“Here’s what you do,” her doctor instructed us. “In these situations I believe in telling my patients the truth. Make an appointment for her with my secretary. Tell her I need to see her for an evaluation. This might be a thyroid problem or a vitamin B12 deficiency. It could be depression. Or it could be some changes in her brain. Get her in here and we’ll take a look.”
So we saw our mother and told her about our concerns, our meeting with her doctor. She was tight-lipped, broadcasting a chill of disapproval. I wrote the appointment on her calendar and promised to drive her over. My sister and I hugged her goodbye. But when I called the day of the appointment to remind her I was coming, she said she had cancelled it. “There’s no need,” she said.” “I’ll make my own appointments.”
In the end, it took well over a year to get my mother to the doctor. My best move was consulting a geriatric care manager, who helped me understand the situation and do first things first, obtaining a power of attorney as well as a health care proxy. Then I found housing for her in my town, and moved her to Massachusetts.
Finally, one morning I took her out to lunch: a chicken salad sandwich at Nashoba Brook Bakery. Afterwards, as I drove past the turnoff to her apartment, she looked at me and said, “We’re not going home, are we?”
“Right,” I said, “this is actually the day you meet your new doctor.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, I guess there’s nothing I can do about that!”
For some reason, she was laughing. So I laughed, too.
Thanks for listening,