What My Grandma Taught Me about Dementia

My grandma would have turned 110 years old today. As a child, I remember her declaring her goal to live to 100, and we all were certain that this would happen. You see, Grandma was blessed with the determination of her German ancestry – a determination you did not question.

But it was not meant to be. Grandma died at the age of 89 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. She didn’t really start showing symptoms until her 80s, which I interpret as anecdotal proof that stubbornness may stave off the expression of a disease process that’s already begun and too late to stop.

Grandma was a teacher for many years. A consummate educator, she challenged her students’ thinking so that they would not only learn facts – they would also learn to solve problems and make good decisions in life.

Her influence as an educator extended beyond the classroom in the way she taught her family about fortitude, hard work, and the importance of family. She graced us with this kind of education throughout her life.

I want to share with you the last and most important lesson she taught me.

By 1990, Grandma was in a nursing home and had not spoken in several weeks. Her dementia had progressed to the point that I would have labeled “late-stage” had I known then what I know now about the ravages of dementia.

My family decided to bring her something very special for Christmas that year. Emmett -- our precious, black furry mutt -- had always been a source of joy for Grandma, and she had not seen him since moving to the nursing home. It was time.

Before bringing Emmett into the home, we visited with Grandma for a bit. She did not talk, and I could not detect any recognition in her eyes.

She appeared to be searching.

Not knowing whether our idea would help or hinder the visit, we cautiously led Emmett inside and up to her bed. Grandma did not move or speak, but she was clearly pleased, and Emmett was beside himself. Though Grandma was almost unrecognizable compared to how she looked at their last reunion, such silly things as appearances do not fool a dog’s heart.

We allowed Emmett to dote on her for awhile until we felt she was tired. Emmett reluctantly went to the car after placing one last doggie kiss on Grandma’s cheek. We said our goodbyes, not having heard one word from Grandma the entire day and feeling helpless as to whether she'd understood or recognized anything that had occurred.

We were in the doorway, walking out of her room when it happened.

Her voice.

“Emmett sure is cute, isn’t he?”

I don’t remember much after that. I do remember tears streaming down my face. I also remember my dad simultaneously bringing his knee up and his elbow down in a modified fist pump that can only be interpreted as “YES!”

And I remember spoiling Emmett all the way home.

Grandma taught me that day that there’s still a person in there, damn it, even when dementia is in its final stages. People with dementia are not just shells of the people they used to be. They’re still in there, along with all of the wisdom, beauty and heart that they’ve blessed us with their whole lives. Please don’t ever forget that.

That was the last time I saw my Grandma alive. She made sure she taught me one last lesson, and it was the greatest one of all.

Happy Birthday, Grandma.

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