The Rollercoaster Ride of Alzheimer’s
As a child you look to your grandparents as the voice of wisdom and experience. Instead, my memories are of a grandma who was very childlike. When my grandma was 69 years old and I was 3, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. When I was younger, I did not think of her as having a “disease,” I thought she had her own quirkiness.
My grandmother, Marge Macaitis, was a mother of five children and a grandmother to eleven. Earlier in her life, she was a teacher before staying home to raise her kids. She cleaned houses to help put her kids through college, and she made a lot of sacrifices for her family. But mostly, she loved to have fun:bridge, beer, laughing, and a love for music, especially Johnny Mathis. She was the life of the party. As the disease progressed, social activities slowed down for her. She could not remember names, had difficulty using the bathroom, could not follow conversations, and had a rollercoaster of emotions.
During this time, my family played a huge role in her care. My grandpa was her primary caregiver. My uncles mowed the lawn, my mom and my aunts bathed her, and my cousin Tom and I would keep an eye on her. Many times it was like a playdate for us. Our relationship with our grandma was different from the others in the family. Instead of being there to take care of her physical needs and make her do things, we were there to keep her company.With Tom and me, she did not have to meet social expectations. We were allies and shared the same fifth-grade humor.
One of my favorite memories happened on a regular Wednesday, when my Uncle Mike would take Grandma, Tom and me to weekly lunch. When we went to lunch, our jobs were to keep the conversation going, encourage grandma to eat, and my specific job was to take her to the Ladies room. On this Wednesday, we went to Horseman’s Park, a race track and restaurant, which happened to be right next to FunPlex Amusement Park. On the way home, Uncle Mike said, “We should ride the roller coaster.” Of course Tom and I said yes, and without really knowing what she was agreeing to, Grandma was in for the ride. Despite all that she had lost, in that moment, she was the life of the party and her fun – loving self again.
We walked up to the ticket booth and were shocked to learn all-day tickets were $50 dollars each, and we wanted to ride the roller coaster only once. Uncle Mike was adamant about riding this roller coaster. He was negotiating prices, but the worker would not give in. Finally, he pulled the “Listen, I have my 75-year-old mom here, she only has about a year left to live, let us ride this roller coaster once.” The worker, at a loss for words, let us in due to the circumstances, and Uncle Mike handed him $20.
In the roller coaster cars, the loud speaker said, “Fasten your seatbelts!” Grandma did not know what that meant, so I did it for her. We took off and at the top of the hill the ride stopped. I looked over at my grandma and all I saw was her fun-loving self. No disease, no worries, not a care in the world – just the Marge everyone knew. I told her to put her hands up. She put her hands up and yelled “Holy S@#!!” Although she probably forgot this memory minutes after it happened, I will remember it for the rest of my life.
My Grandma has been gone for five years now. Remembering this event, I see how symbolic roller coasters are and how they relate to her life with Alzheimer’s. Some days she was really good. She remembered my mom’s name, she laughed, she sang, and on other days, she would refuse to get out of bed or eat. Despite the highs and lows, I learned that you have to enjoy the ride. Grandma put her hands up and I know she enjoyed the ride too.