dementiaI know two older women with beautiful minds. My neighbor, Ilse, has a beautiful mind, it just doesn’t always cooperate as she’d like. Dementia has a way of muddling the brain’s communication pathways, leaving a person drifting in and out of a mental fog. Dementia is unpredictable and sometimes unfriendly. One hour you’re laughing and reminiscing, and the next you’re glum and refusing to take a shower.

Helen, my friend’s mom, also has a beautiful mind. Helen is almost 100 years old, and you’d never know it by how spry and wrinkle-free she looks. (Dang. I think I have more wrinkles than she does!) It’s an honor for me to serve as an occasional caregiver for Helen when her daughter and son-in-law take a respite break. Over meals at the kitchen table with Helen, I love to ask her about her childhood growing up in northwest Oregon. I ask her about her adventures living in several states from California to Mississippi to Michigan.

Helen’s long-term memory like Ilse’s is quite sharp at times. Even though dementia is slipping more into Helen’s memory, she is still bright and funny. She may at times repeat herself again. And again. But Helen’s humor is still there. Her sweet mealtime prayers bring me to tears as she bows her head to thank God for our food and for the strength to be our best.

Still There

Even though the cloak of forgetfulness presses down on these remarkable women’s mental health, Ilse, dear Isle, is still there. Helen, dear Helen, is still there.

Over the years, I’ve written about senior issues, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. But it’s one thing to write about America’s 5 million people with age-related dementia and Alzheimer’s, the number one form of dementia. It’s quite another to personally know cherished friends with the memory, thinking, and behavior disorders.

This week, Ilse was moved to a permanent care facility on the gorgeous grounds of a Catholic community of Franciscan women. My collie, Ayrabelle, and I used to visit residents at this charming care center tucked in the foothills of northwest Colorado Springs. My collie, Maisie, and I hope to visit Ilse there soon. As much as Ilse’s daughter and son-in-law wanted to remain full-time caregivers for Ilse in her home, she now needs more skilled care via the hands of the compassionate Mount St. Francis staff.

Still My Neighbor, Still My Friend

Through our many conversations and meals, I feel Ilse, Helen and I are more than neighbors or friends. We’re extended family. I wish dementia was not part of our relationship, but I will never let the dreaded disease cloud what I see in these noble women—strength, grace, laughter and love.

Dementia can muddy the mind, but not the endearing places of the heart. Ilse is still my fun-loving, German-born neighbor. Helen is still my American-Chinese friend.  I may not always know when they’ll be talkative or want to chuckle with me. I’m simply grateful these friends make my life richer with each smile, story and prayer we share.  

If you know someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, how do you stay connected with the person or the caregivers as the disease progresses with its ups and downs?

 Click here to see a sweet video of Helen interviewing me.