Dementia Took My Grandma & Aunt’s Memories, But I Am Determined to Face Aging With Openness

Growing up I spent every Christmas visiting my grandparents. When I was about fifteen years old, my Great Aunt Della came to my grandparents’ house several times during our Christmas visit. While there, Aunt Della sat in the back room adjacent to the kitchen and yelled my grandmother’s name over and over. Whenever Aunt Della called her, my grandmother, Grandma Rose, would scurry from the kitchen only to discover that she could not remember what she needed. As a fifteen year old, I thought that Aunt Della was an odd ball. I later learned that Aunt Della was not an odd ball; she suffered from dementia. At the time, I did not fully understand dementia and how destructive it could be.

My Grandma Rose was short, feisty, smart and one of the most resourceful women that I have been privileged to know. She walked everywhere into her early eighties and was in excellent physical condition. I only wish that the same could be said for my grandmother’s cognitive abilities. As dementia’s vice grip tightened, my grandmother became increasingly combative. Sometimes Grandma Rose did not remember my name or that I was her granddaughter.

Instead of mourning the only grandmother that I have ever known, I chose to enjoy just being with her whether she was combative, silent or sang the same song over and over again. While dementia may have ravaged my grandmother’s mind, it never touched her spirit. Even on the darkest days, I could still feel my grandmother’s feistiness radiating just beneath the surface. I took that feistiness as a sign that Grandma Rose was not going to allow dementia to prevent her from finishing her life race strong.

My own mother is nearly the same age that Grandma Rose was when she began showing signs of dementia. It will be difficult if dementia takes control of my mother’s mind and body. I wonder how I will muster the fortitude to be strong for my mother when she is the person who has always told me how to be strong and supported me through every difficulty I have faced in my life. But, if I must mourn the mother I have always known, I hope to be strong enough to readily and fully embrace who she becomes. Just as with Grandma Rose, I know that dementia will not prevent me from feeling my mother’s spirit.

Having or loving someone with dementia can be overwhelming, scary and exasperating all at the same time. I must admit my own apprehension about the possible loss of cognitive function, freedom, privacy and dignity that comes with dementia. But, if I remain open to the experience, dementia will expand my capacity for empathy, resilience, courage and humility. I do not know if I will suffer from dementia or some other cognitively debilitating condition. However, as time passes I find myself using more of what I learned from Aunt Della, Grandma Rose and my mother.

To honor these women who have poured so much of themselves into me, I choose to live with grace, be a light-bearer of hope, keep overcoming adversity and speak truth to power. Regardless of what comes, I intend to draw upon all that they poured into me to finish my own life race strong.

Originally published in MariaShriver.com

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