When Life Hands You Alzheimer’s, Make Aprons!

Gwen O’Leary
2010

O’Leary’s memoir begins with a description of her nomadic life being cut short because she needs to return to the duties of caring for her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Mom has spent the previous six months in Michigan with O’Leary’s sister, and now everyone is meeting at Mom’s house in Florida for the trade. Mom doesn’t remember Michigan, though she immediately notices her bed has been replaced. From here O’Leary launches her story of the three years she and her husband split care taking duties with her sister, Katie and her husband. Katie’s advice to find something to laugh about every day proves to be the preserver of mental health and patience.

Overarching the endless duties that clearly require nonstop housekeeping, nursing and compassion from any twenty-four hour caretaker, this is a story of an initially delicate looking mother daughter relationship that has roots as deep and fierce as an oak tree. Mom was a tireless many faceted woman who raised four children and ran a farm with acerbic wit and oversight that can break a child’s spirit or temper it like steel. Dad’s full time job for General Motors is what defaulted the majority of the farm work to his wife, though he was a present, involved dad. He, too, is under O’Leary’s care as he becomes more and more frail while enduring frequent kidney dialysis treatments. Dad plays second string on the farm and in this story.

Mom is the star with the demands of Alzheimer’s and her quirky tough love. “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary between shit and syphilis,” is a phrase I appreciate for its clear boundary setting and vivid picture.

O’Leary easily admits full-time care taking is “building her character”, but in surprising moments the reader also glimpses the often overlooked depth of personal torment suffered by the patient. When her mother says, “I’m just trying to keep myself glued together. I’m falling apart and I’m just trying to hold onto all of me,” Alzheimer’s cruelty seems equally distributed as a character builder between caretaker and patient.

A time or two I felt O’Leary avoid revealing the true depth of feeling toward her birth family and the life they lived on a Michigan farm. Like any memoirist she wrote what she could to tell the story in the best way possible. Loyalty, fear, forgiveness, caution for a dozen reasons to tell everything, always plays into true stories.

O’Leary shines in always appearing capable and quite cheerful throughout. Her matter-of-fact re-telling is with a generous loving spirit that needed a writer’s release. She, her sister and their husbands meet the challenges of being children of two parents who need constant care at life’s end. Her book is an insightful glimpse with a good dose of tears and laughter for any person facing Alzheimer’s in a family.

Gwen can be visited at http://www.alzheimerhumor.blogspot.com.

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