The Best Lesson I learned From Alzheimer's Care

Alzheimer's care had begun to take its toll. Exhausted, a light bulb finally turned on in my head: If something doesn't change, stress might just do me in. Then who will care for my mother Peg? There's no sugarcoating how challenging Alzheimer's care can be. But confronting this reality head-on led to a healthy revelation: it was time to steal a few moments for myself.

For five years, I traveled out of town every Friday to fill the role of weekend caregiver and stretch my mother's funds so she could stay in her home with her beloved dog. Rather than slipping into my PJs at the end of the work week I jumped into my car and hit the highway to travel north to Peg's house. When the roads were snowy and slow, I admit I felt a tad sorry for myself. But as I sat in traffic, I eventually figured out my own reward system.

Some nights on the way to Peg's, I stopped at my favorite bargain outlet. On others, the minute I got off the highway, I pulled over and placed a take-out order for fried clams and onion rings at a restaurant that had been my favorite as a child. For ten minutes, I sat in my car listening to Golden Oldies tunes and savoring every bite of my delectable snack. It was an "ahhh" moment. My cholesterol might have been suffering but I swear my blood pressure went down. This simple pleasure readied me for the tasks of changing Peg, doing her laundry, getting her groceries, cooking her meals, and everything else that comes with 24/7 care - an unrelenting routine that all Alzheimer's caregivers understand.

When it was no longer feasible for Peg to stay in her house, she moved in with us. Even with her failing memory, Peg was wise enough to seize the moment when presented with a chance to indulge her own guilty delights. Alzheimer's allowed my mother to greet each day with carefree abandon, which was opposite to how she had lived her rather challenging life. The day her dear friend Carol paid a visit was no exception. Since Carol had driven a long distance, we brought her into the kitchen for some ice tea. We were within earshot and assumed that Peg was still watching her favorite cooking show that we could hear from the next room. We were so wrong.

Carol had left a cheerful gift bag on the sofa next to Peg. It proved too great a temptation. In the four or five minutes we were in the kitchen, Peg managed to unwrap and open the big box of chocolates inside the bag. With her short-term memory turned off, the desire for sweets was completely overpowering. Like the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are in the chocolate factory and the assembly line goes haywire, Peg jammed chocolate after chocolate into her mouth. Before she was discovered, she had consumed an entire layer of the decadent treat. If we had known what was happening we might have avoided some rather unfortunate issues that soon followed. Peg had stuffed herself to the point of illness with her favorite chocolates, something she had probably never done in her life. But she smiled nonstop though it all, like a kid in a candy shop. My mother taught me an important lesson that day. It really is OK to indulge yourself every once in a while.

One moral of this story might be to never ever let a loved one with advanced Alzheimer's out of your sight. The other lesson I learned is a bit more realistic. There's nothing wrong with caring for the caregiver, and especially caring for yourself.