Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Inequalities of Memory

Our library has been celebrating Jane Austen this month.  I was looking at the beautiful new copies of her books they've purchased, and noticed they had a quote from each book displayed above the book.  I was reading them, trying to guess which character might have spoken that line, when I saw this one:
"If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."

~~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

My attention was entirely caught by this particular quote, and I read it several times. The reason it spoke to me is because my Mother-in-Law has Alzheimers, though she no longer will admit to it. I'm not completely sure she is still aware of her own failings ... not just that she's in denial, but that she might not even recognize it anymore.

Alzheimers is difficult to track, because it affects each person differently. In some areas, she still does fairly well, but in other areas, she's a few steps worse than she appears to the casual observer. You have to spend time with her, observing her, talking to her, and trying to reason with her to really see her deficits.

Unfortunately, she is a widow. This week marks the 2nd year of her being widowed, and it was only a few months before that (when my father-in-law was hospitalized) that we began to realize how much she was struggling with Alzheimers. We had known she had it, and we had witnessed her repeated questions, repeated stories, and her confusion in planning family gatherings. But we hadn't really seen how confused she was, until Father-in-Law was no longer able to care for her and Steve had to step into a more active role in her life.

As he spent hours with her, trying to explain his Dad's medical situation to her, as he spent the evenings and nights at her house when visiting his Dad, and as he helped her maneuver through the business side of life after his Dad's death, we couldn't help but see what they'd been able to hide before. It was so sad, and Steve felt he had lost his Dad and Mom at the same time. Yes, she remembered him still, but she was obviously impaired, and he knew what was coming.

Steve's Grandma had Alzheimers, and he had watched her slowly fade away. When I met her during our engagement, she was like a fragile doll being led around, cared for, fed. A silent doll. I never knew her, even though I met her.

Steve's Mom is growing more forgetful. Earlier this year, we told her our expected baby was a girl. She then declared she'd only had girls, never any boy babies. Steve said nothing, and she soon realized what she'd said. "Oh, wait! I had you and John, didn't I?"

Just this past month, we've been discussing travel plans with her. She could not be convinced, even when looking at a map, that she had to go through a certain major city to get to her hometown. We did finally decide that maybe she didn't consider it being there if she didn't have to get off the highway or drive through the downtown.

This week she stood before me and couldn't remember the word for motel. She defined it for me, and I gave her the word. Then a few minutes later she forgot her son's name. She asked me if my husband was going to do something. She has never referred to Steve as "your husband" before. She's forgotten our kids' names at times, but never his.

She can be very hard to reason with, because she is losing her ability to think logically, but she thinks she is being logical. She is certain she is right, even when she is not. We try not to argue with her, learning to pick our battles, and knowing that on another day she might be more reasonable.

She just moved here to our town, and is living independently for now. We don't know how long that will last, and are watching closely for signs to show us when she needs to move to assisted living. Up until now, she has been able to pay her bills herself, but she is beginning to show confusion in that area, as well. Thankfully, so far she has erred on the side of over-paying.

It is sad to watch her memory fail, and strangely fascinating to see what she does remember. She is spending more time dwelling on her past. We've heard so much about her college years, high school years, and childhood in the past 2 years. She seems to get stuck in a certain era, and we hear the same stories over and over and over for weeks. Then she moves to a new era. She's especially fixated on those family and friends who have died before her, telling us their tragic stories every time we talk to her.

My kids are noticing the changes, as well. They don't enjoy being with her as much as they used to, getting tired of her repeating herself so much. She doesn't follow their conversations as well as she used to, so she often doesn't understand what they're trying to tell her when they talk to her. She also seems more easily stressed by the children than she used to be. It's a sad change, and it's only the beginning.  The worst is yet to come.
"There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences."

~~  Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Missing her already,
April E.


  1. I can't even imagine. That has to be so hard. I'm sorry you are going through that. But what a blessing that she has people who love her so much and are watching out for her.


  2. My grandmother has Alzheimers, too. What you describe is very familiar. Tomorrow we will go see her. We had to put her into a nursing home last year when my grandpa fell ill. He died in July. She thinks he divorced her and is living with another women upstairs in the home. So sad, indeed. It is not use to tell her that he loved her and cared for her for over 65 years!


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