In case you’ve never met him, this is my “little brother” Brad (I previously introduced him here and here). We weren’t particularly close growing up, but I have spent the past six years getting to know him on a level I hope that most siblings will never have to experience.
Brad was a freckle-faced, mischievous kid who had lots of friends, but I knew something was different about him with respect to his ability to learn. He went to a special school for a few years, but my parents never let on to any particulars related to his ‘special education needs’ until one day when I was about 12 years old. I don’t remember what was happening at the time, but Brad was having trouble with his school work and I think my dad sensed my annoyance with my brother over something trivial. I don’t remember Dad’s exact words, but he took me aside and urged me to be kind to my brother and try to help him out because life was harder for him than for most.
I do remember promising my dad that I would try harder to be kind. Little did I know then just what that would entail, but Facebook reminded me earlier this week that six years ago I arrived in Milwaukee to look after my mom who was in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s and ended up taking my brother to the emergency room at the VA Hospital in Milwaukee. That trip resulted in a series of appointments and a battery of tests, which led to a diagnosis of colon cancer and various cancerous skin issues, in addition to unmanaged diabetes. And so began my opportunity to keep the promise I made to my dad more than 50 years prior ago as I embarked on my ministry of care for my brother, driving him to and from various appointments in treatment for all of these problems. Somewhere along the way it was determined that Brad had experienced some mini-strokes and that he was cognitively impaired – the neurologist called it vascular dementia. It soon became apparent that it would be wise to move both my mom and my brother to live near me
Brad’s room at a nearby nursing home is scheduled for much needed renovation this summer, so the management asked families to help their resident clean out extra items. I stayed for a bit after we returned from Brad’s doctor appointment last week to take care of that. We tackled his nightstand together first, starting with a bag full of unopened cards that people had sent him. There were Easter cards, birthday cards and even a few from Christmas. I opened each of the cards and read them to Brad, reminding him of who people were if he didn’t remember them. Then, I packed up his winter coat and a few items of clothing that he doesn’t like to wear. There were a few t-shirts which were frayed and stained, obviously his favorite shirts to wear, so I took them with me and told him I would purchase new ones.
Someone had gifted Brad with cookies at Christmas. He pointed to the tin on his nightstand (pictured below) and told me he had saved it because he thought I would like it. I don’t know what it was about that simple gesture, but it meant a lot to me that he thought about something I would like. Honestly, even though he had eaten all of the cookies in the tin, it was like a belated Christmas gift.
Last month we celebrated my grandson George’s birthday. I cannot believe my youngest grandchild is eight years old already. Like many 8-year-old boys, he’s into all things Legos and Minecraft. This year he asked me to make his cake and surprised me when he went a little retro in his decorating request. Pac-Man!
When it comes to birthdays, I am so very thankful that my daughter helps her kids create Amazon gift lists. They make shopping for my loved ones so much easier. A “click” or two and the shopping is done and I can be reasonably sure that I am purchasing something my grandchild really wants and will appreciate.
But shopping for a loved one with Alzheimer’s (or any type of short-term memory loss) can be a little tricky. What they once enjoyed may now hold no meaning at all, or may actually cause agitation. My mom had Alzheimer’s. It took a little bit of experimentation to find out what she liked, but I learned things along the way and hope my experience will be helpful to someone else. Here are a few of the gift ideas my mom enjoyed:
Something cuddly soft and warm (and very washable) – like a new blanket, a pretty sweater, or a beautiful shawl. In my experience with my momma, being cold was always a problem. I could be fanning my sweaty self and my sweet momma would be in the same room looking for something to wrap herself in because she was cold. We bought her several plush bed jackets and soft sweaters with pockets. Momma was not alone, as being perpetually cold was a problem with many of her friends in her assisted living memory care. I would suggest something in a favorite color, but nothing with a busy pattern; I learned the hard way that patterns can turn into terrifying objects when a loved one is in a stage where hallucinations and delusions are common (you can read about one such experience here).
The quilt hanging on the railing in the photo below was a gift for my brother sent by his friend Cheri and the church quilting group to which she belonged. It was such a nice gift and sweet gesture of love and care. He may not remember who gave it to him, but he will appreciate its warmth in the coming winter months.
Coffee (or another favorite beverage). Mom’s eyes lit up when I brought her sweet tea or a Diet Coke. My brother always enjoys a good cup of coffee (with lots of half & half) whenever I visit him.
A photo book. Photo books are a perfect icebreaker when visiting a loved one who no longer remembers your name or connection. Just paging through a photo book takes away some of the awkwardness of memory loss, giving you something to enjoy together. In the photo above, my granddaughter Violet is spending time with her great-grandma going through a photo book that features Violet’s family. In addition to your corner drugstore, there are any number of on-line sites where photo books can be created.
A favorite treat – as Alzheimer’s progressed, mom developed quite a sweet tooth and loved it when I brought a cookie or a donut. Please don’t be too worried about nutrition; it’s all about your loved ones favorite things and bringing them joy at this stage in life. I would occasionally put a cookie in a ziplock bag, then tuck it in her purse for her to discover later. Your loved one may not realize it is from you, but trust me when I say your surprise will bring a bright spot to their day.
A birdhouse. Many residents have birdfeeders, which are quite enjoyable; however, they require someone willing to keep them clean and filled with seed, which isn’t always practical. Birdhouses are quite lovely to look at and don’t require a lot of upkeep. Seeing bird families coming and going is sure to bring a smile.
What are your gift suggestions? Please share them in the comments.