Last week, I got a call at work from a concerned nonna inquiring about our services. She explained that her husband is in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, but that it’s difficult for her to talk to her friends about his condition; not only can they not relate, they’re skeptical about what she describes. Though he’s been getting lost, taking four days’ worth of meds in one pop, and hiding keys in the freezer, in social situations, this same nonno shines. He’s able to chat with acquaintances and is the life of the party.
This may sound surprising but it’s actually not uncommon at all. We often hear only of the losses associated with Alzheimer’s disease and are therefore unfamiliar with what’s preserved. Early on especially, the right side of the brain is left relatively untouched; while one’s reality orientation, impulse control, and eyesight are diminishing, their ability to engage in social chitchat is intact. In addition, they hold on to rhythm and music and (uh oh!) curse words, which is why your angel of a nonna may come out with things that would have otherwise appalled her.
Pretty interesting, vero? When I lived and volunteered at il Rifugio three years ago, one of my loves used to always say things like, “Look at you. I remember when you were a tiny baby! How’s your mother? Everybody good at home?” She’d even call other nonnas over to revel in how big I’d gotten. I’d obviously never seen this lady before, but I was more than happy to laugh with her about my chunky high school years and how protective my crazy brothers are.
I had countless conversations like this in Treviso, too, and also since I’ve been home with my new loves at Senior Helpers – one is even convinced that my boss is my dad :-O . Could I correct them and specify that we’ve just met? Or skip the small talk and get down to business? I guess, but why the f would I want to do that? Recently, I visited an Italian-speaking nonna who we care for five days a week. I was obviously ecstatic to meet her. After sitting at her kitchen table for a little while, she asked me why I had come by. When I responded with, “Perche no? Just to see you and spend time together,” she actually cried she was so happy.
Cary Henderson, a former history professor who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and recorded his thoughts, has said:
“And another really crazy thing about Alzheimer’s, nobody really wants to talk to you any longer. They’re maybe afraid of us. I don’t know if that’s the trouble or not. I assume it is, but we can assure everybody that we know Alzheimer’s is not catching.”
I beg you, chat with your love. Talk about anything. Shoot the breeze with the nonno who lives down the street. Call the nonna who shops at your job and who you know is alone. Chat even if they’re mistaken, and especially if they’ve lost the ability to answer you back. These social interactions, while seemingly trivial, can mean the world to someone, even after their mind has deteriorated and their memory is erased.