My first experience of dementia was my Grandma McKnight’s. It was the mid-sixties, and though old folks back then aged and lost their memory, people didn’t talk about it. It was not a dinner-table topic.
My brother and I used to stay overnight with Grandma McKnight when my mom and dad had a party to go to. We loved staying with her. She would walk us over to the corner store and buy vanilla ice cream and Hires root beer. Then we would go home and she would make us root beer floats in pastel colored aluminum tumblers. The ice cream made the cups so cold you couldn’t hold them, so Grandma slipped a hand-crocheted cozy onto the base of the cup. She had a range of colors to match the aluminum of the cups: yellow, pink, lavender, turquoise. These practical craft items must have been the rage because my other grandma, Grandma Temby, also had a set.
At night, Grandma would give us each a back rub while she told us stories of her life on the farm in Kansas. The story of how the dog Nero saved a toddler from drowning in the flooded culvert formed part of the foundation of my faith in the supernatural. Grandma McKnight was our kind grandma. She never corrected or chastised us like Grandma Temby did.
Sometime after I was ten, my dad came home from a visit to Grandma’s and whispered to my mom in the kitchen. I knew something was wrong, and my face asked the question. Dad spoke up and let me know that Grandma had been forgetting to shut off the burners on her stove. She had also left her front door standing open all night. Soon after, I overheard Mom on the phone to Aunt Alice: Grandma had gotten upset when Alice and my Uncle Mac visited. She thought Mac was her long-deceased husband Clarence, and she wanted to know who this woman was, hanging on his arm! I was told that Grandma was getting “senile.” The term “Alzheimer’s” was unknown, and the term “dementia” was not used. Perhaps “dementia” suggested mental illness whereas “senility” suggested a normal part of aging.
Did either of the two families consider taking Grandma in? Not that I ever heard. Mom and Alice started searching for a rest home for her. This was well before the internet, so they used the yellow pages and called around to friends. They also dropped in on facilities they had seen from the road while driving by.
Grandma McKnight was placed in a home in San Dimas. She had a roommate who stole her jewelry. She would get out of the place and wander away down the road, sometimes at night, sometimes in broad daylight. One night a man came into her room and tried to get in bed with her. At least that was what she said. She never knew who I was after moving there. I tried to be kind and smile and pat her hand, but it was a nightmare for me. My parents saw how distressed I was to see Grandma that way, and after a couple duty visits they never made me go there again. I remember the place was very clean and sunny with none of that sick smell of rest homes. I didn’t have to smell that horrid odor until much later in life.
The fear instilled in me at that time has never left me. No one could explain what was happening. They tried to protect me from Grandma’s transformation, and that only made it more spooky. I feared that my other grandma and my parents would have the same disease. I feared that I would. Keeping senility a mystery made things worse. I believe that children’s books, like Folding Memory, can be conversation-starters for families dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Our book proffers no cure, of course, but maybe it can give a glimmer of hope—at least a hope for kindness and understanding.