Saturday, September 29, 2012

Driving Grandma, Mad

  My Grandma Curtis spent the last 10 years of her life with Alzheimer’s and dementia. I can’t really say she ‘suffered’ from it because she never appeared to be ‘suffering’ at all. She lived with my parents. My mom worked full-time at a job that included a two hour per day commute, then came home to deal with grandma.

Initially my grandma was simply forgetful. Eventually, along with leaving the oven on, she became paranoid and her basic communication skills deteriorated. Her doctor officially documented that she was unable to be left unsupervised for any amount of time. I was available, so like many parents drop their children off for day care, my mom would drop off grandma to my home every other week day, alternating with an adult day care center that would pick her up.

Due to her communication challenges, mom and I learned to interpret grandma’s cues and attempts at communication, like you would do for a toddler learning to talk, except grandma kept getting worse instead of better. Unlike my mom, who had to deal with grandma around the clock, I found life with grandma every other day, more amusing than frustrating.

“Ok grandma, here’s your eggs.” I served her breakfast at the dining table.

“Oh well, hhmmm, ok.” she began picking at the contents of her bowl.

“Everything ok, grandma?”

“Well, hhmmm, can I…?”

“What do you want grandma, do you want some salt?”

“Oh no,” she grimaced as if adding salt to her eggs was ridiculous.


“No,” Grandma began to purse her lips together tightly. “You know,” she said while making a pouring motion with her hand.

“Milk? You want milk on your eggs?”

She smiled like a happy child and I understood she also wanted sugar.

“Sugar? You don’t put sugar on eggs, grandma.”

She hit her hand on the table as her frustration grew and let out her usual, breathy “Ghhhd dammit!”

I finally realized she thought she was eating cold cereal and it really didn’t matter how she ate it. I smiled and patted her back while I poured a little milk into her bowl of eggs. She enthusiastically began to dig in.

One of her favorite hobbies was crochet. Her petite hands had tightened with age and she also lost the ability to remember the stitches. She still loved to carry her bag of yarn and hooks around with her. We could easily make her happy by giving her a new skein of yarn. Sometimes we just gave her an old skein and told her it was a new one.

She’d slowly begin to ease herself down onto the plush furniture that seemed to swallow her.  Halfway down, she’d drop on to the sofa cushion, unable to support her small frame. She’d dig into her tote bag of yarn and pull out a large tangled mass and get to work. She would stay industriously busy attempting to roll and unroll balls of impossibly tangled yarn.

One afternoon, she must’ve gotten bored with the yarn and had a moment of inspiration. I had just come out of the restroom when I heard a knock at the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone and was surprised when I opened it.


She stood there smiling and waving at me as if she had just arrived for a surprise visit.  The woman couldn’t remember how to talk and walked with a shuffle but had somehow managed to walk through my kitchen, out the backdoor, down the porch steps, out the back gate, around to the front, climb up the front steps and knock on the front door.  I never left the dead bolts unlocked again after that.

One of grandma’s biggest complaints was the fact that ‘they’ would no longer let her drive. My mom would go round and round arguing with her about why this was unsafe. I took a different approach. One evening I was driving her home and it triggered the driving rant again.

“If they hhmmm my keys,” she said holding up a thin skinned, veined fist.

“Your keys? Do you even have a license grandma?”

“Well, no…they!” she mumbled.

“Oh. Well you’re right, you should get a license.”

“Well, yes!”

“You need to tell them. Just tell them, ‘Give me back my license!’”

“I know!”

“Yes, all you need to do is go to the DMV and pass the test.”

“I will.”

“Do you know how to get to the DMV?”


“What car will you drive when you get your license?”

“Well, if your dad…”

“Oh did my dad take your keys?” I smiled. “You need to tell him to give them back!”

“Oh! He’s just a beaner from the bean field.”

“I don’t think my dad ever worked in a bean field. He’s a locksmith.” I laughed.

“Oh, I know,” she frowned.

We arrived at my parent’s house and I couldn’t help grandma climb out of my mini-van fast enough. She rushed up the front steps into the house, elated to see my mom. It was a normal day but for grandma it was as if she’d been away for weeks. She hugged my mom with tears in her eyes.

“Well, ok, bye Gale,” She called me by my mother’s name. Other days it was my aunt Sharon’s name.

“Oh, I’m not leaving yet,” I laughed.

“Oh.” She rolled her eyes at my mom and laughed at some secret joke she thought they shared.

“Mom, why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you some tea.” My mom told her.

“Ok mom.” She referred to my mom as her mom.

“Grandma, why don’t you tell mom to make an appointment for you take your driving test.”

“Katy, please don’t get her started.”

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