Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has effected more and more people over the years. Babyboomers are all coming to age and have been faced with taking care of their elderly and aging parents, either coming to live with them or caring for them in the parental home. Either way, it is not easy, mentally, emotionally or physically. It’s hard to see the very parent who was once your tower of strength, come to a point where they are declining so much that you are becoming their parent and they your child. Most of the time we are doing this while trying to manage our own families, kids plus working full time. It’s becoming a desperate time for our generation and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Photos Above: (1) Mom’s handwriting in 1985, (2) Mom’s handwriting at work, shorthand, (3) Mom’s handwriting 2014 weeks before her death, (4) below, Mom at an office party with Maury Amsterdam at what was most likely Bozell & Jacobs in NYC in the 50’s or 60’s.
My mother, Eleanor Van Meter was a very intelligent woman. She aspired her whole young life to be a career woman, and that she was. She worked in NYC at prestigious companies as an executive assistant, usually with the head of the company that she worked for. She had many responsibilities and took it very seriously. So, with that said, it was so hard for me to see her decline to the degree that she did while living with me. I looked at her as my superior, both mentally and in pecking order as a parent. And then, without a moments notice, I was her parent. How are we expected to cope with that?
I watched her slow decline over the span of about 6 and a half years after a fall in a supermarket, breaking her hip. A once brilliant woman, was now arguing with me on a daily basis, accusing me of all sort of crazy and insane things and at first, I would be hurt by her words, but then after educating myself, I understood what I was dealing with. Her father also had dementia, but being a young person at that time, I don’t remember this side of the disease with him. I do remember him sliding into the void, not knowing us, just staring into space with void eyes while confined to a wheelchair. I realized that this was the direction that my mother was heading in.
My mom was a born office worker. When living with me, a good day for her would be to sit in her room going through all sorts of paperwork, which could keep her busy for hours upon hours. She was no longer able to take care of her monthly affairs, so I had to take over for her. She would sit with her boxes of papers for long periods of time sorting and filing and trying to make head or tails of them. I knew that she didn’t understand what she was looking at, but was trying desperately to figure things out. After all, it’s what she had done almost her whole adult life and now she would sit baffled by what she was looking at, yet at the same time knowing in her heart that she used to know.
She loved the English language and would pride herself on her poetry and the use of the words in her writing. She also wrote letters, diaries and journals for years. Her best friend Noreen, who has known her since the early days in NYC, has told me of how wonderful mom was in her professional life. She also told me how her letters were so brilliantly and carefully written, that she could have been a professional writer. She was that good with the English language. The images above are some of the things that I found in her papers which demonstrates the obvious decline in her handwriting. The first one, just an excerpt from one of her journals, was a nostalgic look back from when she was a child. It was a happy time and written in her usual handwriting that I remember so well. The second is her professional handwriting, shorthand, taught in school and used throughout her adult life in both professional and personal times. I don’t know much about shorthand but I felt as if it was a different language, and as individual as she was. She would use it right up until the time her mind started declining. The third image is something she wrote a few weeks before her death. It’s hard to look at and certainly hard to understand how the mind could decline so drastically so as not to be able to remember the very thing that fueled her existence in better years. I can see on the second line that she was trying to write her name, ELEANOR. She started out with all caps and just couldn’t resolve it in the end, leading her to just scribble. How frustrating it must have been for her. I would ask her on several occasions when she couldn’t get the words right, “you know exactly what you want to say, don’t you…but you just can’t find the words, right”. She would always say yes, and I saw the pain in her eyes. Dementia wasn’t who she was, it was what she suffered from. Who she was, was an intelligent, highly organized and professional person with a very kind soul.
The very saddest thing, is that they know it’s happening to them…they know what they were once able to do, but no longer can do. They don’t understand why, but they absolutely know it’s happening to them. This is a very cruel disease.