In a way, my Grandma K died three times.
The first time was before I was born. My grandfather, Jack, passed away in 1976 after a battle with leukemia. My mother would tell me that a part of Grandma K died with my grandfather. She was never the same. And worry and doubt set in for the rest of her life.
From the time I was old enough to remember, she would spoil us--me, my brother and sister, and all of her 14 grandchildren. Matchbox cars, a little cash here and there as we grew older, and, of course, ice cream whenever we would visit.
As long as I knew my Grandma K, she never quite had it all together. I wonder what it must have been like for her to worry. To fret. Every day. But in between and underneath, there were little bits of joy.
When I was 24, she had open heart surgery. When I was 25, we danced at my wedding.
The last time I remember her being “present” was when she visited us in Raleigh. 82 years old, she and I went to the Museum of Natural Sciences in Downtown Raleigh for a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. It was a typical North Carolina summer day: 90% humidity. 90 degrees out. Grandma K still needed her sweater. But she enjoyed seeing the artifacts for a few minutes before we headed back home to watch Law and Order on TV the rest of the day.
In the months that followed, it was like she died a second time. It became clear that she could no longer live on her own. She moved into a memory care nursing home. When we would visit, she would call me mom “Girly.” She knew they must be friends, but she couldn’t be sure where they might have met.
Other times, she’d speak nonsense, telling my uncle about how she and her friends would trade lips in the cafeteria. We would guess, but we never really found out what she meant by that.
If there was a saving grace to the seven years she spent in the nursing home, it was that they diagnosed and treated my Grandma K’s anxiety. Although she couldn’t remember who any of us were, I’d never seen her more relaxed and comfortable in her own skin than she was in the nursing home.
I can’t help but wonder if my Grandma K’s persistent uncontrolled anxiety might have had something to do with her dementia in her later years. If she had been able to get control of it, might things have been different for her?
At 38 years old, I know that the heredity of various forms of dementia puts me at risk. What can I do today to reduce the risk of developing dementia as I grow older? I try to live a healthy lifestyle. And I try to manage my own anxiety and doubt.
Nobody has a surefire way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. But what we are working on--planning in order to mitigate the risks--planning to make sure your wishes are respected--it does remove one source of doubt and insecurity.
I suppose one of the reasons I often talk about the benefits of living with a clear mind--free of anxiety and doubt--is because I see how much better life can be when you’ve done something about it.
The Alzheimer’s Planning Center is part of my Grandma K’s legacy. Until there’s a cure, I look forward to the good we can do in helping people with dementia--and in helping people caring for others with dementia--live better lives by planning for a more secure future.