Remembering Rita: A Life With Alzheimer’s by Sara Derkacht
By May 9, 2011 3,027 1
My paternal grandfather, Bill, passed away when I was eight years old. He left a lot behind at his young age of 63. The most important was my grandmother Rita, who just a few short years earlier had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She moved in with my family immediately, as my father was an only child, left to care for her.
As a child, I obviously had no real understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, only its symptoms. She’d put her shoes on the wrong feet, I’d gently slip them off and put them back on correctly. She’d curiously stare at her soup, I’d nudge her hand toward her spoon as a gentle cue. She’d call my father Bill, I’d tell her his name was Steve, but it was okay since they did look a lot alike. We all did our best to help her remember.
Within just a year of her moving in, Alzheimer’s had taken so much from my grandmother that my father made the decision she needed full time professional care. He moved her into an assisted living facility specifically for individuals with Alzheimer’s. From that point on, we’d visit her every Sunday.
She didn’t know any of us anymore. She couldn’t speak. And they’d cut her long black hair short and dressed her in sweats - a far cry from the red lipstick, thick wool dresses, and designer heels we had continued to dress her in at our house because she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Despite the changes, we’d still sit and tell stories about our week. My father would ask her if she recalled working for Seattle’s mayor decades before or about her life growing up in Boston. We’d look at pictures. Sometimes we’d watch Wheel of Fortune. We were making important memories. And despite the fact that she wouldn’t recall them, we would.
She passed away when I was 16. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I realized all I ever really knew of my grandmother was Alzheimer’s disease. And that it must have been painfully tragic for my father to watch his own mother forget him, his father, and their life entirely. It makes me wish I had paid better attention, spent more time, asked more questions, and made more of her fading memories my own to share with others some day.
As we get closer to the 13th anniversary of her death, I look at where the world of Alzheimer’s is now. The organizations founded to fight for a cure, the advancements in early detection, the medications designed to slow symptoms, and the care available are astounding. As each continues to grow and advance, it gives me hope that those like my grandmother will someday live long, full lives and remember every of step of the way.