Dementia through the Eyes of a Teenager

February 1, 2018

As a teenager, I felt invincible. I could eat anything I wanted and not gain a pound. I could go out and play three sports in a day and be ready to do it again the next. If I was injured recovery happened in no time. While I knew I wouldn’t live forever, it sure felt like it. Then I saw my PawPaw go through what I now know is called “Alzheimer’s” or “Dementia.”

I was in the midst of my ninth grade year when I first noticed my PawPaw beginning to act a little bit different. I was visiting my grandparents and they know my favorite food to eat before bed was cereal. Rice Krispies was the choice for this particular night. I asked my PawPaw for some sugar to pour on top. He sprinkled the “sugar” on top as I poured my milk over my tasty midnight snack. As I took my first bite, I immediately spit up the Rice Krispies in mouth. “PawPaw! What kind of sugar is that!?” We discovered the “sugar” he sprinkled over my cereal was actually salt.

As a teenager, I thought it was hilarious. We got a good laugh out of it, but in hindsight this was my first exposure to dementia creeping into my PawPaw.

My PawPaw was a preacher his whole life, at least that’s what it seemed to me. I asked him once when I was a kid if he ever read the whole Bible because even when we went on vacation to the beach he would spend hours reading the Book. He looked up and casually said that he tries to read the whole Bible once a year. I sure did believe it because as a kid it seemed like his prayers lasted forever when he prayed for all the people he had discipled in South America and at his church. On top of preaching, he walked a couple of miles every day, loved the North Carolina Tar Heels and bragged on his three daughters, 9 grandchildren and the great-grandchildren that seemed to grow in number every year.

Since my grandparents live two states away I was only able to see them every couple of months. The last time he visited our family down in Georgia he happened to see me play the football game of my life. I was able to score the game winning touchdown with little time remaining and my PawPaw made sure everyone, including the cashier at the food market, knew about my touchdown. He’d always start by saying, “Do you know my grandson, Nathan? He’s the finest football player you’ll ever see!”

Each time I visited after the “cereal incident,” I noticed something a little bit different about PawPaw. It started with forgetting little things that were funny to a teenager, but as the months went by and communication with PawPaw became more and more difficult, the 17-year-old kid visiting his grandparents didn’t think they were very funny anymore.

As PawPaw entered what I now know as “Middle Stage Dementia,” his couple of miles a day were limited to the mailbox and back. His memory of the starting lineup for the UNC basketball team began to fade, though he still loved to watch every game. The names of all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren became harder to remember. As a teenager, I always gave him a hard time when he couldn’t remember my name. When I reminded him, he’d always say, “Oh, I knew that!” To me, he was still the same ole PawPaw, his memory was just fading.

Soon after my senior year of high school, PawPaw started to look different on the outside and dementia became noticeable beyond his fading memory. He spent most of his days in a hospital-type bed in his room. For the next year, each visit it seemed harder and harder for him to say my name. Most of the time he didn’t know who I was, but once we reminded him, he’d say, “Boy! You were the finest football player I’d ever seen,” and he’d go on to tell the story about me scoring the last touchdown he saw. It’s hard when reality sinks in that your role model in life is being taken away by a sickness with no cure.

My MawMaw, the angel that she is, spent her days caring for him. Bathing, cleaning, changing the sheets, feeding, the list goes on and on. Most of the tasks weren’t very pleasant. Even on the days he needed to be reminded of her name, she was there for him. PawPaw had entered “Late Stage Dementia,” and I realized it was a little bit harder to joke around with him during this time. When I visited him it was honestly hard to spend time with him because he wasn’t like the PawPaw I knew and I didn’t know how to interact with him. However, in the last few months he was with us he still could quote John 3:16, sing along to a hymn and sometimes he would remember MawMaw’s name.

Reflecting on those last couple of years of my PawPaw’s life, there were five things that stood out to me:

  1. I wasn’t invincible. Unexpected trials come out of nowhere and life becomes fragile.
  2. Find a woman like MawMaw. Beauty on the outside can fade but finding someone who truly loves you and will take care of you even when he can’t even remember her name is what is most important.
  3. Even in the latest stages of dementia your passions remain your passions. PawPaw still could quote Scripture. He still enjoyed UNC basketball. He still told stories of his children and grandchildren.
  4. Dementia education is needed. As a teenager, I didn’t need to know the science behind dementia, but I needed to know what my PawPaw was going through and how I could help him.
  5. Don’t mix salt with cereal.