She looked up at me from her seat at the table and her face lit up with joy. She made her way across the room, eyes welling with tears, and squeezed me tightly. My heart swelled, thinking that for the first time in a long time, she actually remembered who I was. When she finally let go, she tearfully looked me in the eyes and called me by the name of a childhood friend, long since gone, as she greeted me, “Why, I haven’t seen you in ages! How is your mother doing?”
She is my grandma, and she helped raise me after my mother passed away when I was three.
My grandma, the one I spent every single night talking to on the phone, who I stayed with on my school holidays and summer breaks, who I lived with during a time of transition in my life.
My grandma, who never knew a stranger.
Who always made her presence known in the room with that big, booming laugh that would erupt out of her short little frame.
My grandma, who came to every choir concert, every birthday party, every Christmas and Thanksgiving. The one who never ended a conversation without saying, “I love you” and “Watch out for deer.” The one who helped teach me to drive and cook and talked me through every friendship and relationship right up through college.
She is my grandma, the woman who has always been my favorite and closest relative, the woman who I was closest to for the first 30 years of my life.
And she no longer has any idea who I am.
And that’s the horrible, ugly truth of dementia.
A lifetime of memories, erased.
The grandma we knew is no longer with us. My grandma has been replaced with a frail shell of a woman in a constant state of confusion. I’ve spent years already grieving the loss of that woman even while her broken body remains here with us.
The memories might be gone, but the love still remains. She no longer knows me, but I’ll always know her. She no longer remembers the years we shared together, but I still do. She doesn’t recognize her favorite granddaughter, but I still see who she is.
Because I love her, I can smile back at her and let her think she’s reminiscing with her childhood friend. I can simply be with her without pressuring her to remember things that her mind is no longer capable of remembering.
I can privately grieve her while enjoying her presence for this little time we have left.
Because I love her, I can hold her hands now and remember how we used to paint our nails together. I can brush her hair and remember how she used to let me put rollers in it or style it however I wanted to. I can watch her hold my babies and imagine that somewhere in there, the grandma I’ll always remember is beaming with pride.
When you love someone with dementia, you love them for who they used to be and for who they are now. You grieve the person you’re losing while finding new ways to enjoy the person who is still here. You hold on tightly to the memories you shared together after the person you love has lost their grip on them.
Dementia is a thief of memories, of personality, of livelihood, but it’s not a thief of love. And that love may look different when you love someone with dementia, but it can never be taken away.