The Lighter Side of Alzheimer's Disease
by Pat Carbonell

"What?!" you exclaim. "What do you mean, the lighter side? Alzheimer's is a terrible disease that robs the victims of their memories!"
Yup, it does. It also robs them of their inhibitions, a lifetime of repressing what they'd really like to say and do. And there, if you can manage it, is where the humor comes into it.

My mother is just shy of 81 years old, and has recently progressed to the second stage of Alzheimer's - which pretty much means that while she can still talk, the words coming out aren't necessarily the ones she means; that she forgets anything from recent events to her entire life; that her ability to learn anything is squat. As this stage has progressed, living with her has grandmaruth2.jpgstarted to closely resemble living with Sybil. Mom now has multiple personalities. We've started to give them names.

First is "Clara", so named for my miserable bitch of a grandmother. "Clara" is a stubborn, opinionated, verbally abusive, crotchety old biddy. She swears we're lying to her about everything. She thinks we, or various other someones, are trying to kill her. She thinks we're trying to poison her. She tells us we're liars, cheats, thieves, free-loaders and sluts. She tells us she hates us. She wants out of this place, because this whole situation is bullshit. If not that, she wants us out. She calls my sister's cooking garbage, and won't eat it. It's pretty hard to screw up scrambled eggs... but I got to dodge flying eggs one evening. She doesn't remember that her balance is crap, and will get out of her chair and try to walk without her walker - someone has to be within eyeball distance all the time, in case "Clara" sneaks up on us.

Last week "Clara" decided that I was the villain of the day, and that she was going to throw me out of the house. She managed to stand up, with my sister and I hovering on each side of her. When I put my hand out to steady her, she grabbed my wrist and proceeded to thrash me with her soft fuzzy teddy bear - whipping it back and forth with this look of absolute glee on her face! Lynne and I were laughing so hard we were crying!

Then there's "Ruth", which is my mother's real name, and that's who she is when she's pretty much with the program, but doesn't remember that we're her family. Instead of arguing with her, and getting her upset, we just call her "Ruth" instead of Mom, and leave it at that. We have some lovely talks about just about everything. "Ruth" tends to be fairly pleasant, but sometimes she gets sad or worried, and starts running on this mental hamster wheel that takes a crowbar to get her off.

Then there's "Sarah", the drama queen. Oh, yeah, Mom always had a dramatic streak, and man, is it coming out full force now! "Sarah" cries. "Sarah" wails. "Sarah" wants to die. "Sarah" has been a pain in the ass, because when Mom cries, she gets a headache and a stomach ache, and she won't/can't eat. "Sarah" gets shut down as fast as possible when she
idiotdemoncat.JPGshows up. Don't get me wrong, when it's Mom or "Ruth" crying, because she's sad or feeling helpless because she's just remembered the Alzheimer's and her blindness, we hold her and comfort her and help her past it. "Sarah", on the other hand, gets told to knock it off and get a grip - and she always does. The tears stop, and the whining stops, because nobody's being a good audience.

Then there's "Ruthie". "Ruthie" isn't fun at all, because it turns out that my mother was severely emotionally and verbally abused as a child, and "Ruthie" is Mom regressed to childhood. I have legions of dead relatives I'd like to dig up and do very very bad witchy things to. When "Ruthie" is scared, all we can do is hold her and tell her over and over again that she's safe.

Mom does show up from time to time, and she remembers that we're her kids, how old she is, what's wrong with her - our names escape her most of the time, but she does remember that she has grandkids and greats. It's funny, in a way, but the most reliable trigger to get Mom out of "Ruth" is to remind her of our cat Idiot. He's this humungous 15 lb. fixed tomcat, black & white longhair, who decided long ago that his purpose in life is to guard our house. He patrols. He also sleeps with Mom, and will put his face up to hers to get a kiss when she goes to bed. I think he sticks in her head because a couple of the great-grandchildren love to come over and call him by name, because it's the only time they can say a bad word (idiot) without getting into trouble. Either that, or just because he has such a singular name.

Sarah_Bernhardt.jpgMom also shows up fairly consistantly for my daughter, Jo. Mom helped raise her (we've been together for 21 years), and Jo is "our girl" to Mom. When Jo takes her shift in the afternoon, she always assumes that it's Grandma she's dealing with, calls her that, and most of the time that's who she gets. They chat about what's been going on in Jo's life, they sit and bead together (my mother strings plastic pony beads for kids' necklaces that I sell at the Farmers Market), and they usually have a pretty good three hours together.

Finally, there's "Elizabeth". That is Mom in smart-ass mode. She'll sit there and hint at something, and when asked, smile sweetly and tell us she's not going to tell us, figure it out for ourselves. She laughs at us when she drives us nuts. She also appreciates a good sick joke. I can deal with "Elizabeth", because I'm a smart-ass, too.

"Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think." Fortune cookie wisdom. As I told "Ruth" last week, when she asked me why I laugh at things so much, I choose to view life as an ironic joke, because otherwise I would have eaten the end of a shotgun a long time ago.

So we name her personalities, and wait for the next one to show up!

Vermont Village Witch Archives


Sorry about your Mom. Sounds like you have a good way of dealing with it.


Yeah, my Mom's starting down that road at 77. She never was the most verbally inhibited person I knew, but now the editor is completely gone...shot. She called Boyo "You lil sonofabitch." when he got a Yahtzee on her. Luckily Boyo thinks Gramma is funny.


You truly amaze me and have honestly given new meaning to finding the good in everything. I'm sure, if your Mom was in her mind, she would be awfully proud of you.


Ernie - thanks. We have good days and bad days, and most days are a mix, but yeah, we really try to make the most of the fun times. Hell, we crack jokes in the E.R. every time we go there!

Timmer - I like the sound of your mother! She sounds like the type of woman who is going to terrorize all her caregivers when the time comes, just for the entertainment value!


Taking care of my grandmother is one of those things people my age (29) never think to do. Four years ago I made my grandmother a promise. "I will NOT let you die in a nursing home. I will take care of you."

Making promises like that are hard. I've had to fight most of my family about "warehousing" my gram. Yes, its hard. Yes, its sometimes painful. But I know right now that when she eventually passes on, I will be one of few people in my family NOT regretting the time I didn't spend with her. I will not be wishing for more time. I will not be wishing I'd done more. I will smile at her funeral knowing that I did everything i could to make her happy and comfortable. I will also know that my time - was well spent.


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