The smell hung in the air so densely I felt like I could see it: a gray, sickly cloud that pervaded every hallway of the cheerily-named Sunnyside Manor. As I walked to the courtyard toward my Alzheimer’s-afflicted aunt, I couldn’t help the sense of dread building in my stomach. As she turned toward me, her eyes narrowed in confusion, then turned grimly polite.

“And who are you?” she asked me bluntly as I approached her, as she did every week I visited her.

“I’m your niece,” I said awkwardly. “I… I brought some pictures for us to look at.”

Over the next thirty minutes, we slowly worked through the family photographs I had fanned out on my lap. She eagerly asked who everyone was, and I explained as casually as I could. She had been the one last week who requested I bring pictures, but I could tell that was long forgotten.

As the sun began to set, everyone around the courtyard started shuffling inside for dinner. I began to stack up the photographs again and told her I would come back next week, this time with my sister. She nodded pleasantly enough, but as I turned away to leave, I felt her hand grip my shoulder.

“What about my husband?” she asked suddenly.

I felt my heart drop. I had almost made it out free.

“What about my husband?” She asked again, more insistently this time. “Will you bring my husband?”

As usual, my tongue felt stuck to the roof of my mouth as I tried to think of a gentle answer. I have had multiple family members experience Alzheimer’s, but this part never, never gets easier.

“I know I had a husband,” she said falteringly. “Where is he?”

I took her hands in mine and said lamely, “I’m sorry…”

“No,” she said instantly, as she did almost every time the subject came up. “No, don’t say that. Where is my Freddie? Where is my Freddie?”

I still held her hands in mine, but made eye contact with a nearby employee, who began to walk toward us. “He passed away eleven years ago,” I told her gently. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” she said again, loud enough to make me jump. “Don’t lie to me! Where is he?”

“I’m sorry,” I said for a third time, feeling stupid and useless as she yanked her hands away from me. The weary employee approached just in time and held her arms gently as she struggled, and whispered to me, “Go.”

I know that as horrible as it was for me to say it, it was a hundred times worse for her to hear it. I turned and said to the ground, “I’ll be back next week, Auntie,” as I hurried away from the dark toward my car.

16 Comments

  1. Hi Emily —

    Have you sought out any professional advice on these sorts of death notifications with your aunt? I read somewhere that, in order to spare these patients from the ongoing terror of having to re-live the grieving process, it is sometimes better to tell a lie to cover the truth because that can calm them in their moment of fear —

    “He’s at the library.”

    “He’s working and will be back soon.”

    “He stepped out for a second.”

    — were all examples that might work to ease the wondering.

    I remember a long time ago when I was a Howard Stern listener and he would tell a story about his grandfather being terrified over having no money. Howard’s father got a blank bank book from the bank, and then wrote in a fake balance of $1,000,000.00 — and when the grandfather would ask every day about being broke and on the street, Howard’s father would show him his million dollar bank balance and everything would be okay again… until the next day of terror.

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    1. That thought actually did cross my mind as I was writing this: “Why didn’t I just lie?” I guess I hadn’t prepared myself enough for what I was going to deal with. I think I will keep these in mind for my next visit– hey, if it worked for Howard’s father, I bet it could work for her!

      Hopefully if the hard questions keep coming toward the ends of the visits, I can give her an easy to swallow answer and not have to deal with followup questions or suspicion.

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    1. Thanks for the link, Gordon. Your grandmother sounded like a wonderful woman.

      You’re exactly right with the good days and bad days, and that makes it even more difficult– the hope you feel one day, and then hopelessness you feel the next.

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  2. Luckuly my father who had full blown Alzheimer’s died first , my mother who had the far softer “senile dementia” luckily knew her husband had died. My brother who never used to visit – maybe once a year at Christmas was not so lucky – she could not remember who he was.

    David makes some good suggestions about the kinder alternatives available to you – if you have a moral belief in not telling any kind of lies at all to anyone – ” I am not sure where he is at the moment ” should cover it.

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    1. Hey, waitaminute!

      How is — ”I am not sure where he is at the moment” — not the same sort of cover I suggested? They’re all lies, right? Emily knows precisely where he is, doesn’t she?

      I wonder how staff at Sunnyside handle that question? You know she must often ask.

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  3. close to the thrid of your examples – the first two allude to library and work, Emily knows he is not on this earth – other than that she does not know …………… the suggestion I gave was the one the nursing home my mother was in gave in such cases, which is why I quoted it – there were many who felt they could not lie and that was their answer to it.

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    1. But if he’s dead, you know where he is — “Never Here” — so how is that a more beneficial lie?

      I find it fascinating that was what the nursing home suggested, and they certainly know what works and what does not, and I support anything that would stop a never-ending grief response.

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  4. I think the nursing home who suggested that to the pedantic crowd – there were some who I know lied through their teeth to their relatives but could not tell a beneficial lie to the one with alzheimers. it is far less of a lie than the ones they told every day.

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    1. It’s a fascinating topic — because you can’t tell the truth because they are unable to handle that reality every day because they forget their grieving. So, you’re always forced to lie in some small or large way — and I guess being vague and undefined is the best lie in context.

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    1. Right! I would prefer avoidance or distraction among having to say anything, but it is almost impossible. I used to work at a daycare and it’s much easier to babble about nonsense to distract a child than a once-capable elderly woman. As much as she has regressed, I don’t want to treat her like a child.

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      1. we used the weather ………….. her love of flowers birds etc – we also used to ping several keywords or phrases from the past at her and most of the time she would bite and we could talk about old saying and when we used to do x, y and z ……………..

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        1. Ah, the old weather discussion- enduring even through mental disease.

          All your and David’s suggestions have made me realize I need to keep a literal list of possible remedies/distractions close at hand when I visit! Having that reference point will make it easier on both of us.

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