Merced caregiver finds joy in little moments

Aimee Mattson and
her wife Val Geurin have been caregivers for Val’s mother, Bonnie for over
eight years. Aimee and Val have found ways to educate themselves about
dementia, manage the challenges, and appreciate moments of joy.

Bonnie, who is living with Alzheimer's ahd her husband when they were first married
Bonnie and her husband

A loving farm wife
Before Alzheimer’s, Bonnie was a firm but loving woman who enjoyed coloring and was a great cook. “She always had time for the kids,” said Aimee, “and made sure there was enough room on her lap for every grandchild.”

Bonnie was
the kind of woman who bought Christmas gifts in advance and ran the household.
“She raised her own kids, her
grandkids and was a foster parent,” said Aimee. “She was and still is a
stone cold, I’ll knock your block off, farm wife. When she says, ‘this is how
it’s going to be,’ then this is how it’s going to be.”

Moving across the country
In 2008 Aimee and her wife Val were living in Minnesota. They had started noticing that Bonnie was retelling stories during the same phone call.

When Aimee
was laid off due to the recession, they saw an opportunity to move closer to
Val’s family and lend their support. However, they weren’t welcomed with open
arms. “It was kind of arrogant on our part,” said Aimee. “We thought we would
ride in and save them.”

Difficulty getting a diagnosis
The decline in Bonnie’s health progressed slowly, until Bonnie had triple bypass surgery 2012. When she woke up after surgery, her ability to remember things had gotten much worse.

Bonnie, who is living with Alzheimer's and her family
Bonnie, Val and the rest of their family

“We were
alarmed,” said Aimee. “We were trying to piece together what happened. We asked
the doctors for help while we were at the hospital. They insisted it was the anesthesia
which can take weeks to clear up, but I was skeptical.”

Aimee works
at an assisted living facility and sees dementia patients daily. She easily
recognized the signs in her mother-in-law and began fighting to get a
diagnosis.

“The fog
never cleared,” said Aimee. “She kept losing her keys and could no longer make
plans. I called her on Christmas to ask when they were coming over and she had
no idea what I was talking about or that it was even a holiday.”

Stepping in to help
With her father-in-law’s permission, Aimee and Val began to help with Bonnie’s healthcare. Aimee said, “It was alarming how hard it was to get them to give her a diagnosis.”

Bonnie’s
doctors didn’t want to do the diagnostic tests and were hesitant to believe what
Aimee and Val were telling them. Finally, in 2015, Bonnie received a dementia
diagnosis.

An unexpected death
Tragedy struck six months after Bonnie’s surgery, when Aimee’s father-in-law died unexpectedly. He had been working in the yard and fell. His visit to a doctor led to a lung cancer diagnosis.

After
he died, Aimee and Val realized everything
he’d been trying to manage. Bonnie’s memory loss was much worse than they
thought. They didn’t realize just how much he had been covering for her.

“He
loved Bonnie so much, he couldn’t limit her abilities,” said Aimee. “He’d never written a check, because she
ran the house. He worked his tail off and then he had to learn how to pay the
bills, shop and manage the house.”

Val gets to live her dream
Bonnie couldn’t live alone, so Val and Aimee welcomed her into their home. “We’re parents to four kids,” said Aimee. “Our youngest is three. Val stays home with the kids and her mom.

“It’s a lot of work. If it were me, I would say this is too
hard, but for Val, it never feels hard. She always dreamed she would get the opportunity
to take care of her parents.

“Every night Val says to her mom, ‘I can help you with that.’
It’s always in the same tone and cadence every night. I couldn’t do that.
Taking care of your parents is tough.”

Teaching their kids compassion
One of the positive things that has come out of this whole experience is showing Aimee and Val’s kids how to be better people. “We sat down and talked with our kids about what was going on with Grandma and how they can help,” said Aimee. “They’re learning humanitarian skills and they better understand what love is.

Bonnie who is living with Alzheimer's spends time with her grandkids

“My mother-in-law will be sharing stories with the kids about
how she and Grandpa met. Then she’ll joke about how she doesn’t know where he’s
run off to. She’s very sassy about it. The kids know not to correct her. They
know to only ask her about her past because she can remember that.”

Aimee’s kids are working hard to make sure their grandma’s
life is the best it can be for the time being. “It humbles me,” said Aimee.
“It’s exhausting but it serves Val’s heart. I love it too and I wouldn’t trade
it even though it’s hard. I’m proud that the kids take a stance that supports their
grandma and nourishes her even in her confusion.”

Managing her paranoia
A person with Alzheimer’s may become suspicious of those around them, even accusing others of theft, infidelity or other improper behavior. While accusations can be hurtful, it can help caregivers to know that the disease is causing these behaviors and to try not to take offense.

For Bonnie, there are several things that make her paranoid.
Once she starts to worry about something, it is very difficult to ease her
fears. Aimee and her family do their best to help navigate Bonnie’s concerns before
they escalate into something more.

“If there is a toy on the floor, Bonnie worries about people
tripping on it,” said Aimee. “If a car drives, by they must be casing the joint.
The red taillights of the passing car are a fire next door. It’s one of the
hardest things to deal with.”

Everyone in the family does their best to make sure to clean
up toys or distract Bonnie before she has an opportunity to worry about it. “We
make a joke about it,” said Aimee. “We don’t want her to worry and build it
into more than it is.”

Benefiting from the e-news
Aimee first learned about the Alzheimer’s Association through her profession. She participates in the Merced Walk to End Alzheimer’s and had signed up for our chapter e-news.

“I’m always surprised by all the resources. Every time I open
it there’s always one more thing I didn’t know,” said Aimee. “It’s not
something you read and then discard. There is always more to go back to.”

The positive side of Alzheimer’s
Aimee does her best to find the goodness in life. This is especially true now. She shared some wonderful anecdotes from living with her mother-in-law. Aimee believes that there is an opportunity to find joy and humor in caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.

My old hands
“We have a smart television. It’s amazing, we can take photos from our cell phone and stream them to the tv. It comes up as a slide show and Bonnie loves it. She sees photos of her brother-in-law, her best friend and her husband. She doesn’t realize that those are old photos.

“The other day she looked down at her hands and said ‘I need
to go to the doctor. Look how old my hands are!’ The first time she did that, I
reminded her she was 84 and she just looked up at us in shock and started laughing.
She said, ‘You’re so funny.’ She didn’t believe us at all.”

Hours of enjoyment
“Bonnie’s favorite fruit are stone fruits, so we picked up some at the farmers market for her. She opened the bag, smelled the fruit and said, ‘Mmm, it’s my favorite.’ We talked for a little bit, then, three minutes later she asked, ‘Did you bring me something!?’ She picked up the bag and smelled it again.

“That’s one of the things that’s so sweet. She kept opening
the bag and enjoying it like it was the first time, every few minutes for two
hours. I just enjoy the fact that we’re delighting her again and again and
again.”

Bonnie who is living with Alzheimer's makes waffles with her granddaughter
Bonnie making waffles with her granddaughter

A birthday note to her mom
For Bonnie’s most recent birthday, Val wrote a note to her mom on Facebook. She talks about all the things her mom can still do and still remember.

“Today is my mom’s birthday. She doesn’t know which one. In
fact, she recently got very annoyed with me when I told her her age. After
experimenting a little I have discovered that she is pretty satisfied with
something in the late forties, so that is what I answer now, when she asks.”

“I want to mark the day that I can make her a big stew that
SHE requested for her birthday dinner. She can still enjoy a trip to town to
wander around Walmart, or lunch out with the family. She kisses my kids
goodnight, and gives advice about raising chickens and how to fix a leaky
toilet.”

Val goes on to talk about how her mother is forgetting who
she is or where she is. “One day this week, my mom was almost in tears worrying
about how her mom might be mad at her for staying out so late without calling.

“She has had to ask for the fifth time today where the
bathroom is, in a home that she has lived in for over 2 years.”

Despite all that is going on Val continues to celebrate the
little things. “On this day though, I want to celebrate that my mom holds my
hand on one side and my son’s little hand on the other side, as we come
together as a family and bow our heads to offer thanks before we eat.

“I want to acknowledge how profoundly grateful I am that
every night I have the privilege of helping her get ready for bed, tucking her
in, getting a kiss good night and hearing her say, ‘I love you, thank you for
helping me, sweet dreams.’ Happy 48th birthday mom.”

There are many ways you can adapt routines and activities if
you have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias at home. Visit
our
Daily Care page
to learn about resources and other ideas to help make your life a little
easier.

The Alzheimer’s Association e-news updates subscribers on the
latest information on Alzheimer’s care and support, advances in research, as
well as inspirational stories and resources for people living with the disease
and their caregivers. Sign up for the enews at
alz.org/enews.

Learn more:

  • Information for kids and teens
  • Home safety Check list
  • Dealing with suspicions and delusions
  • Sign up for our e-news
  • Walk to End Alzheimer’s
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