BUBBE TALK: How reliving the past helped an Alzheimer’s patient stay in the present

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BUBBE TALK: How reliving the past helped an Alzheimer’s patient stay in the present

Cynthia was the chief financial officer for a major retailer in the 1970s. After a successful career as an executive, she and her husband Charlie retired to Arizona. A few years later, Charlie died and she moved back to Massachusetts.

Her son called me to inquire about elder companionship. Cynthia was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s. He was hoping to find someone to help her continue to live independently in her own home for as long as it was safe.

We set a date to meet. I was warned, though – Cynthia was tough and there was a chance she’d throw me out of the house. She (like many others) didn’t think she needed any help – let alone companionship.

A few days later, I was sitting at her kitchen table with her son, trying to (gently) coax her into accepting me. When we started to talk about cooking, she perked up. She agreed to let me come over the following week.

It turned out that the kitchen was Cynthia’s domain. In her prime, she hosted barbecues, parties and get-togethers every weekend. She became my cooking mentor and took this role very seriously. This allowed her to manage the cooking process, with me executing most of the tasks. She was still in charge and I could reduce risks associated with her prepping and cooking alone.

Cynthia was able to live independently in the home she built with her husband for a few years after the initial diagnosis.

The house was everything to her. She designed it with very specific touches. She made sure that all the doors were solid wood. She coached her husband as he built a laundry chute, and she figured out a way to add an indoor grill to her kitchen in the 1960s.

Cynthia and I spent time pursuing her hobbies: gardening, painting and photography. We took day trips to picturesque places. She wore her camera around her neck while diligently seeking the right shot. As time went on, she lost interest.

She eventually moved to a memory support assisted living residence. Understandably, Cynthia was resistant to leaving her home but she eventually settled in. I continued to be with her. The consistency of regular visits hopefully helped with the adjustment. I joined her for various activities like yoga, gardening and watercolor classes, where her creativity was reawakened, if only for a short time.

During the years we spent together, Cynthia did a lot of reminiscing. Fortunately I took notes and was able to put together a book of family stories for her to bring to her new apartment.

The book served her well, but after a few months, she was no longer looking at it. As her memory declined, I wanted Cynthia to still have access to these precious moments of her life.

I had an idea. I wondered if she would be tempted to read the stories she told me in a format that was different from a book.

Cynthia’s attention span was short so I decided to write one page stories, typed in a larger font and double spaced. I put a picture on each page that corresponded to the story subject.

She still loved to read, especially out loud. When I gave her the first family story, she read it to me and added details that I hadn’t heard before. I created more, sharing them with her one at a time. They brought back good feelings and laughter. Reading them became one of her favorite things to do.

I continued to visit her up until the pandemic. When I couldn’t see her, I asked her son to request that staff share these pages with Cynthia. I hoped that they would help her stay connected in some way, shape or form.

Her son, who had much more (great) material to draw from, took over writing Cynthia’s stories. I think there are more than 100 of them now.

While COVID kept us away, staff members were kind and sat with her as she read. Eventually, they started reading to her. I hope that by giving these stories back to Cynthia, she found some comfort during her journey deeper into Alzheimer’s disease.

Carolyn Schultz Eggert writes from Newton. Previously she was a reporter for People magazine. Email her at Carolyneggert@yahoo.com.

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