Missing parent
Coping when a parent suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
You often read of children who go missing. One minute they’re playing soccer outside in the road or heading to the shop for bread and milk, and then they’re gone. Fear fills a neighbourhood. Sometimes parents go missing, too, and no milk carton picture will ever locate them again: Alzheimer’s Disease.

One of the most tragic discoveries I made when my mother became missing was that we realised too late that she had gone. All I could see was her behaviour becoming increasingly erratic, and the tests were inconclusive. Where she had doted on my firstborn son, by the time my youngest was born she seemed to pretend to care. By the time he was a couple of years old, she was completely missing.

She wasn’t mad or particularly alarming in the way she became- just isolated from whom she had been. She vanished from the present. As traumatic as it was to see this melting away of personality over a few short years, it was harder to explain to my children. She’d come to visit (from 500 km away) and then want to leave after a few minutes. She’d sit smiling but saying nothing to my kids who were excited to see Granny.

We’d have to take more care if we went out in case she wandered off. There have been many instances of people with Alzheimer’s getting lost, sometimes driving to strange towns, or even of them being run down as they walked into busy roads.

Saying goodbye to the living

I didn’t really get to say goodbye. Not in the way you’d probably wish to say goodbye to a loved one. When they say that he or she died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, I didn’t get to do that. Every visit she made while in her period of decline was a goodbye, and yet the words were never said. How do you say goodbye to a person who isn’t there? How can you help your own children say goodbye?

She never got to the point where she didn’t recognise me, but the fiercely intelligent woman with the incisive sense of humour had slipped away like a toddler abducted from a playground.

My children just seemed to accept Granny for who she was, having not really known her as an independent woman, and sometimes I’ll tell them stories about her and show them the few pictures I have. In Hollywood the parents of a missing child seem to keep the child’s room suspended in time; a shrine to the vanished. I don’t often visit the house where she died, but memories are much more vital than objects.

If I was to get a search party going for my missing mother, I’d get the hounds to sniff the mental snapshots I have of her. I’d wave recollections like the time she wiped my runny nose as a child with tissues from her handbag that smelled like Chanel No. 5, or the way she’d insist on getting small treats for us from the bakery.

A missing child is held in suspension, and the same is true of a grown woman with Alzheimer’s. The creation of memories ends. Police sketch artists can sometimes come up with projections of how a missing child’s face would appear a decade later, chubby cheeks replaced with cheekbones, childish ponytails snipped into a neat fringe. The missing old person sketches this on their own face. Life gradually melts away from them, making their features a mere two dimensional version of who they were.

I dream of her occasionally. We’ll be laughing those loud laughs the way we would when we used to meet for coffee- laughter that would make people at other tables turn in curiosity. We’ll hug and she’ll know herself again.

And I live with the nagging fear that one day I will vanish before my children’s eyes. That they’ll be forced to endure me slipping into myself forever. It happened to my mother when she was just 17 years older than I am now, when she was 60.

It may not happen in your family. Let’s hope not. But people are living longer, and the longer you live, the chance that you may experience dementia of some sort increases dramatically. As parents of young children we live in fear that they could go missing or get lost and yet too often it is us, when we’re older, whose effervescent fizz vanishes into life’s translucent solution.

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Have you experienced Alzheimer’s disease in your family? How did you help your children cope?

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