How to Deal With Your Demented Grandmother
by Ashley Anderson
When your demented grandmother tries to drink lemonade out of a TV remote, don’t laugh. If you have lemonade, get her a glass. If you don’t, add it to the shopping list. You’ve come home to help your mom care for Grandma so she wouldn’t have to go to a care facility—her worst nightmare. You’re gonna be here for a while, so buckle up.
It’s not all bad. For one, you can talk to her whenever you want. Before dementia, you couldn’t call after 6:00 on the weekdays and noon on weekends. That’s when she’d be halfway through her daily magnum of wine. Now, she’ll ask for beer, even though she doesn’t like it. So pick up some O’Doul’s while you’re at it. Make sure you pour it into a sippy cup, because if you don’t, she’ll ask why the fuck it’s non-alcoholic. Turns out, she can still read.
She’ll grill you all day every day on what’s for dinner, your plans, and if you’ve seen her mom, who died last year. Do not tell her this. Instead, master the art of distraction, and keep your lies straight. When she asks if “Mom” went to work, she’s asking about your mom, who she thinks is her mom. Tell her a half-truth, something like, “I dunno, I slept in,” and bring her some orange juice, which she loves. This is a good way to avoid the old “your mom is dead and that’s not your mom, that’s your daughter” talk. When she asks to go home, say okay, but she needs to take a nap first. And when she asks about your boyfriend, Steve, make something up, even though neither of you has ever dated a Steve.
“Oh, he’s great, we’re doing awesome.”
When she asks again you can try, “Oh, we broke up.”
And then, “Oh, we’re kind of on the rocks,” and tell her about your actual problems with your actual boyfriend.
If she asks what day it is, say you don’t know that either, just to make her feel better. Sometimes you really don’t know, so it’s not always a lie. Tell her you also have the worst memory.
Sometimes she’ll call you a liar, which sometimes you are. Grandma thinks everyone is lying.
You and your mom will take very different approaches to deal with Grandma. Your mom warns you not to play along with her paranoid delusions, but you’re bored. So you put on your detective hat and “search” for her missing purse. You stick a twenty in her wallet, reassuring her that no one stole anything. She’ll give you the twenty as a finder’s fee and send you to the pool vending machine for some Cokes, although there isn’t a pool or a vending machine. Get one for yourself too, she’ll say. What a sweetheart. The plan will backfire when she accuses you of stealing her twenty dollars. You now owe her a Coke.
Call yourself Cathy, or Libby, or Nancy, or whichever one of her estranged sisters you happen to be that day. Try not to giggle when she asks where Ashley is, even though you’re Ashley and you’re right in front of her. Don’t get upset when she claims she hasn’t seen you, even though you just watched a horror movie together. She loves horror movies, but they won’t help with the delusions. Consider a documentary about penguins instead.
You can fill in the blanks when she forgets a word, or you can learn to speak in code.
“Are you gonna wash my baseball bat?” she’ll ask.
Baseball bat means butt. Napkin means blanket. Phone means remote. Some of it makes sense, when you start to think about it.
When it’s pill time, take on the identity of Nurse Nightingale, or if you’re in a bad mood, Nurse Ratched. Keep an eye on her. She’ll sneak the biggest pills under her pillow, swearing that she already took them.
Also, “someone is trying to poison her.” Don’t take it personal.
She gets sad around 4:00 pm, so give her a Xanax beforehand. When she’s down in the dumps, she likes to say that she would be better off dead. It won’t do you any good to list off reasons for her to live. It’s never worked, and it won’t work now, so let it go. You’d probably wish you were dead too, but don’t say that.
You’ll wish that this was Alzheimer’s, which is what your friends call it even though you told them it’s not. It’s Lewy Body Dementia, which has more hallucinations, paranoia, and psychosis. Tell them it’s what Robin Williams had, how reports of his depression only scratched the surface.
Grandma was no stranger to depression. At first, she seemed happier with dementia. Oblivious, as if she’d forgotten why she was so unhappy—her dead-end job, the family she pushed away. But it seems like she’s reliving everything now. Imagine being on your death bed and seeing your dead mom and your ex-husband, both abusive and armed. It’s insane. Imagine how frustrating it must be to have needs and no way of vocalizing or recognizing them.
Grandma would be offended by the comparison, but it’s kind of like having a big kid. Instead of “first Christmas” or “first steps,” there’s “first time she forgets who you are” and “first time she forgets to chew her food.” With this warped taste of motherhood, you’ll struggle to meet or acknowledge your own needs. Like a mom, you’ll do laundry every day, because she soils everything. And you’ll wonder: how many other adults are giving their loved one a sponge bath? Is this normal? Will it ever be? You imagine rich people pay someone else to do it.
Privilege is never having to see your grandma’s bush.
Grandma grew up poor and will die that way too. She once said she’d work until she died, that it was the one thing she was good at, and you believed her. But she can’t work anymore. She spent decades in that office with nothing to show for it. Nothing for the Medicaid application, the one that asks for five years of bank statements and an ex-husband’s salary. Don’t they know she has nothing?
And you’ll get mad at everyone, especially the people who say it’s all going to be okay. Nothing feels okay. It doesn’t feel like it ever will be. Her screaming at night isn’t okay. The medical bills aren’t okay. The used diapers she flings off—not okay. But you’ll get used to it. Kind of.
“It’s just her dementia,” relatives say. It would be nice to think that the bad parts of her are the disease, but you know some of the bad parts were there before. And if the bad parts are just the dementia, are the good parts just dementia too?
But if want you can tell yourself it’s “just her dementia” when she calls you a stupid bitch and says she hates you. When she drops to the ground and screams. When she looks at you, previously the apple of her eye, in a way that makes you glad looks can’t kill. You’re lucky she hasn’t hit you yet, but you know she couldn’t hurt you. The worst she’s done is dig her nails into your skin as she squeezed your hand, surprised by a bowel movement.
A long time ago, she made you promise never to put her in a home, to kill her before it got that bad. You said you would. Forgive yourself for lying; who could actually kill their grandma? She threatened to do it herself quite often, but she never did. You think it might be because of you. Don’t feel bad, please don’t feel bad, for secretly hoping that she falls and hits her head. Just keep that to yourself.
But who can you vent to anyway? To whom could you say, “Sorry, I’m having a bad day. My grandmother got poop all over herself this morning.” There’s no movie to relate to, nothing that captures the odor of used baby wipes or the tedium of repeated conversations. Or even the logistics of illness. Dealing with invoices and life insurance. Paying her bills, packing her things. But at least those tasks give you something else to do.
Laughter, more than anything, will get you through this. Guilty, pitiful laughter, when she says you lost weight and then realizes you’re not your mom. When she says she gave birth but doesn’t remember being pregnant.
Try and have fun. Sing the Beatles while you get her dressed. Tell each other secrets over the rails of her rental medical bed.
“Come, come,” she’ll say, “don’t repeat this. Pinky swear.” She tells you she stole a school bus to move her furniture and needs your help returning it to the school. “Please don’t call the cops.”
Grandma had so many secrets, from embezzlement to hit-and-runs. Who’s to say she didn’t steal a bus?
It’s almost worse when the delusions stop. When she knows that it’s you who is caring for her and cries, saying she never thought she would end up this way. Tell her you love her. Tell her you know she’d do it for you too. Thank her for everything. When she tells you she loves you, listen. Be present.
Watch your demented grandmother eat ice cream. She’ll keep forgetting her favorite flavor, Pistachio Pistachio.
“Mmmmm, what is this? Where did you get it?” she’ll ask, as you wrestle the pint away from her. Every day, you’ll get to watch your favorite person discover her favorite food.
Remember these moments. Remember who she was before. Hold on to those memories.
Take care of her. Take care of yourself.
Ash Anderson is an MFA candidate at Boston University's Creative Writing program with a concentration in fiction. Her work has been featured in So It Goes, the literary journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.