It isn’t their fault.
When a person develops Alzheimer’s, the first part of their brain affected is the hippocampus, which is where memories are stored. Plaque builds up between nerve cells in the brain, inhibiting the signals that pass information from one neuron to another. Since brain cells cannot communicate, they die off. So the first noticeable symptom of Alzheimer’s typically is the loss of short-term memory.
It’s perhaps one of the most annoying symptoms of the disease ~ repetitive words spoken dozens of times in a day. They forget what they said just a moment ago. They want to communicate. They’re trying to communicate but their brains are beginning to die. So they do the best they can and repeat the same thing over and over again.
Five years ago, my Father’s speech patterns changed. Diagnosed in 2005, he’d already been repeating himself, but eventually, an urgency was attached to it. Like he had one thought and come hell or high water, he was going to say it. And say it. And say it.
Naturally, it drove us crazy. There was no sense in correcting him and even if we said something to him, he wouldn’t remember our words. He couldn’t help it. As a caregiver, I learned that when he repeated himself, it meant at least there were neurons firing. And any cognitive ability he still possessed shouldn’t be disrupted. So I listened…
He told me stories of boyhood pranks he pulled at school, of bribing his sisters with a quarter so they wouldn’t tattle on him to their father when he got into trouble. He told me about the Ford and John Deere tractors he drove on his father’s tobacco farm, how he learned to back one of them in because the exhaust was in the front and it would set the barn on fire. He told me how that experience and his ROTC training at the University of Tennessee catapulted him to the front of his class when he joined the Air Force. He told me of the cold days and colder nights he spent on Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. He told me about the Berlin Wall being built and the frightened looks on the faces of East Berliners who looked beyond the barbed wire and longed for freedom. He told me about working with astronauts at NASA during America’s great Space Race.
I listened to his stories. And as sick as I was of hearing them at times, somewhere in the back of my head, I was reminded that this was a phase. There would be a day when he wouldn’t repeat these stories to me, wouldn’t even be able to communicate verbally. So I listened…
When a dust storm develops in dry and arid places, a towering wall of dust and debris will loom on the horizon and close in on a city like a brown haze. It can measure 5,000 feet high and 50 miles wide. There’s nothing to do but take cover. Once it hits, visibility is low and after it’s over, everything in its wake is coated with dust. Then the cleanup begins.
At times my Father’s incessant talking felt like a dust storm. His words piled up like a towering wall of dust and debris. Sometimes he’d talk for a few minutes, other times it was hours. Once he got started, I knew I couldn’t stop him. And for a while, I was so frustrated with this irritating behavior that it was hard to think about anything else. Because it wasn’t just an annoying habit. It was a reminder that the disease was progressing and taking a toll on my Father. I prayed a lot. I cried some. But I listened…
My Father is now in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. He can smile, sing and clap his hands when Kevin plays the piano. He can laugh and say a few words. He’ll tell me he’s shelling peas or ‘moving this thing out of the way’ while he motions at some invisible obstacle. He can understand conversations and contribute a little. But he can’t tell me the stories.
So I tell him.
I tell him about his boyhood pranks at school, bribing his sisters or getting in trouble for hanging out with some rascals who pushed over the girls’ outhouse. I tell him about working on his father’s farm or how the whole community came together to harvest their crops when his father was sick. I tell him about joining the Air Force and touring Europe with his roommate while the other guys drank their paychecks away. I tell him about joining the Boots & Ruffles Square Dance Club and dancing all over Germany as ‘Airman Vineyard’. I tell him about how he helped astronauts communicate during Apollo missions during one of our country’s finest moments.
I tell him what he’s told me hundreds of times. When he’s having a good day, he nods his head in agreement or smiles when I recount his tales of adventure.
And I realize that what I once saw as an inconvenience and a testing of my patience, really held a blessing. These powerful dust storms of incessant words left behind some gold dust in its wake. If you don’t listen, it’s like you’re sweeping everything away. I couldn’t see it then, but I see it now.
As a caregiver, it’s my job now to remind him of the life he lived and the memories he made. It isn’t my role to determine what he does and doesn’t remember. I just tell him the stories he’s told me hundreds of times before. I share the gold dust with him that he’s shared with me. And he listens…