June 24, 2005

Caring for my Caretaker - When an Elder Gets Alzheimer’s

By Angel Luna

It’s six in the morning and it doesn’t matter if I had a bad night or not — my grandfather needs me.

I greet him by saying, “Como estás, Poncho! Buenos días,” and I get my utensils ready: a garbage bag, wet napkins and some spray stuff that helps clean the skin. I proceed to warn him that I am going to change his Depends, and that it’s going to get kind of hectic. I put my gloves on and I start changing him. I see it as natural because he’s like a big baby.

Four years ago, my grandfather developed Alzheimer’s, and now I help care for him. Alzheimer’s is a disease that makes people forget things that usually they would never forget, like how to walk, talk and coordinate the most elementary tasks.

I cried when my mother told me. My grandpa was the man that I always looked up to in life — the one who taught me that if a man cannot help himself he is not a man. Now, I am slowly watching him become helpless.

When I was growing up, my dad was in my life, but he was too busy partying with his buddies to spend a lot of time with me. My grandpa was the one who would take me to the countryside of Oaxaca, Mexico, and talk to me about life. He taught me lessons that I still carry today.

I remember as a kid I was always excited when my grandpa came by my house. I would play with him for hours and afterwards he would read me a book. These were the wonder years for me. I marveled at this man who knew so much, from how to work in the fields to ancient literature. I was his child and he was my father.

“Mijo,” he would tell me, “you have to be polite to everybody. Greeting people does not make you less of a man.” He was the man who showed me all the old school games we have in Mexico, like how to make kites and spinning tops. My grandfather was the one who taught me spirituality — how to pray, how to persignarme (make a cross) and how to ask God for strength. I always think that loving God was one of the most beautiful things my grandpa taught me.

He was one of the first braceros (migrants from Mexico brought up to the United States to work the fields). He made the trip to support his family, and has always taken pride in being able to provide for them. Before he got ill, he was a very hard-working and righteous man.

He is still a really lovely man, but he is not the same. At first, he could still recognize me and tell me about how he couldn’t remember some people’s names. Then he started to walk a lot with no direction, looking for something that never was there. At some point, he lost the ability to go to the bathroom by himself, and that’s when he needed help doing everything.

It was like watching a computer getting eaten by a virus. All his memory was getting erased in front of our eyes.

Sometimes I get sentimental because I messed up so many times when I was younger, and he was there for me. All I can do now is show my appreciation — pay him back for all those nights that I came home drunk and he was still awake crying because he was so worried about me.

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