When Did You First Suspect a Loved One Had Alzheimer’s?

In this case, it was a tip-off from a cocker spaniel.

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Posted in , Nov 3, 2021

Guideposts Editor-in-Chief Edward Grinnan on Alzheimer's

“I’ll feed you at halftime, Gracie,” I said, trying not to sound snappish since my team wasn’t doing well, and I was hoping they could put up some points before the clock ran out on the half. They’d get the ball to start the third quarter. “You ate late this morning, remember.”

Despite golden retrievers’ well-deserved reputation for sensitivity, Gracie has an ironclad ego. Usually, her relentless campaign for dinner starts an hour before it’s actually time, sitting directly in front of me, shifting her weight back and forth on her front paws, nudging my hand away from the laptop keyboard or sometimes just visiting her empty bowl every few minutes. Hope springs eternal in the stomach of a dog.

I’m used to this routine but today it took me back to a time when my mother’s first Alzheimer’s symptoms emerged and another dog of ours, Sally, an adorable but crafty cocker spaniel, inadvertently played a role in revealing them.

Julee and I had brought Sally with us on a visit to my mom back in Michigan while Julee had a short break from her concert schedule that summer. Sally was young, just coming into her own, and we wanted to introduce Mom to her new granddog. We didn’t think there would be any problems. 

They really hit it off. They were both tough, proud and independent. Evenings they’d sit in the yard together right next to Mom’s statue of St. Francis as the sunlight gave way to dusk and the fireflies emerged, a flickering host of light in the trees. Our previous cocker, Rudy, used to lift his leg on St. Francis, much to my horror, but Mom would just laugh and say St. Francis didn’t mind. 

During the day Julee and I would leave Sally in Mom’s care while we were out and about, me trying to show Julee my boyhood landmarks—“Look, that’s Wing Lake School. I played Little League there. I caught and pitched.”—and Julee trying to be interested when really she was dying for lunch. 

We brought an ample supply of Sally’s food and when we went out would leave simple instructions on how Mom was to feed Sally. One day I noticed that Sally’s chow supply was decreasing at an alarming rate. I had an idea why.

“What are you trying to pull?” I said, taking Sally aside. She just vibrated her stubby tail. Who, me?

But I knew. I told Julee, “I think Mom is having trouble remembering if she fed Sally so she just keeps dumping kibble in her bowl. I’m sure Sally has caught on. She’s being conniving.  She’s taking advantage. She probably goes to Mom every 10 minutes and acts like she’s starving. Mom doesn’t want us to think she forgot to feed her, so she just feeds her again.” My mom had fed many dogs in her life. This was troubling.

“Mom, how often are you feeding Sally?” I asked, trying to sound casually curious.

She evaded the question by saying Sally was still a growing dog and was I hungry for a snack? “I made some cookies.” I knew she hadn’t made any cookies. She bought them at the bakery at Kroger’s and transferred them to her own container. Did she remember or did she think she made them?

We put a stop to all this by measuring out Sally’s food in carefully marked sandwich bags, hiding all but what was to be fed to her that day. Mom definitely noticed. “I know how to feed a dog,” she snapped, and I thought of all the times she fed Pete, my boyhood poodle, when I should have done it but was too busy with baseball or some other pursuit.

How strange that moment is when you first overrule a parent, when you first sense that something is wrong, maybe irreversibly wrong. I watched Mom fussing around in the kitchen and knew she was angry and humiliated. I wondered if she was scared after what her sisters and father had gone through with Alzheimer’s. Talk about ironclad. Mom’s denial was positively bulletproof, and I knew she would do everything to defy what might be the beginnings of the dementia that is so prevalent in our family. My mom was from proud Irish American stock, and there is nothing the Irish fear more than losing their mind.

Until that moment when fear of my mother’s condition first gripped me fully, I’d clung to the notion that her occasional lapses were simply the vagaries of age and her restless mind. There was a thick book on the history of Ireland next to her chair, as well as a paperback mystery, and The New York Times crossword puzzle was open on the kitchen table. She was still doing it in ink, yet I couldn’t help noticing it was unfinished. 

No, I told myself, this was nothing to panic about. A minor incident. She was excited and tired from our visit. Plus, how could you not spoil Sally? I guess a considerable capacity for denial is one of the many things I inherited from my mother. I did everything I could to push away the fear that she was showing the first clinical signs of dementia. Easier to pretend it wasn’t happening than to admit it was, especially if you don’t know for sure. I wanted to hug her, but I know it was wiser to leave her alone. Estelle Grinnan never wanted pity, or at least never wanted to admit it. And I knew that whatever was to come my mother would lean on her faith as she had through so many of the trials in her life that no mother should have to endure, including the loss of one son and the near death of another.    

I wonder now if at that moment of recognition, what the Greek philosophers called anagnorisis, even further down in my consciousness lurked the question: would I too someday forget how to feed a dog?  

Fortunately for Gracie that day hasn’t come. As soon as the teams headed for the locker rooms I headed for the cabinet where we keep her food and pulled some leftover roast chicken from the fridge to atone for my sins. 

Do you remember the first moment when you sensed something was wrong with your loved one, and you suspected possible Alzheimer’s? I am still working on my book about my mother and would love to hear your stories at [email protected].

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