Scary Travels with Alzheimer’s
What is one of the scariest situations you have been in because of dementia?
Let’s face it — dementia can be a scary thing, for everyone involved. Every time I see another news story about someone with dementia wandering off, my stomach tightens. There, but for the grace of God, goes my mother.
My father recently told me a scary story. Years ago, my parents traveled with a church group to Macedonia, to walk where Paul walked. They had booked the trip during the days of denial, but there was no denying my mother’s dementia when it came time to leave. I was worried sick.
That’s probably why my father didn’t tell me this story when they first got home from the trip. Back then, he told me how the other ladies on the trip all helped with Mom. “They were great,” he said. “They really looked out for her.”
He saved this story to tell me years later.
In his words, “When we were in Greece, I needed to go find an ATM to get some more cash, so I told Mom to stay in our hotel room. I explained that I needed to go out, but that I would be back. She said she understood, but when I got back, she was gone.”
She had, indeed, left the hotel room alone. In a foreign country. Wandering off. Fortunately, some people from the tour saw her and kept her safe until my father came back. It could have been quite disastrous. There, but for the grace of God…
My own personal scary situation with my mother took place at JFK.
I’m still not sure of the reasoning behind taking my parents to JFK as opposed to an upstate airport. Maybe, what with my blurry memory and all, it was for that same international trip, and the trip originated from JFK. I think, though, that it was a trip to Florida. We thought a direct flight to Florida would be so much easier than trying to make connections.
Whatever the reason, there we were at JFK — me and my parents. I pulled right up to the door, dropped them off, parked in the short-term parking, and ran over to the terminal to make sure everything went okay.
By the time I got there, they were already well-entrenched in the snaking line leading to the security checkpoint. I stood and watched as they inched forward. My father turned and waved at me. He got my mother to do the same.
Slowly, slowly, they worked their way to the stacks of trays, the conveyor belts, and the scanner.
I watched my parents each take off their shoes and put them in their respective trays. A TSA agent told my mother to remove her jacket, which she did, and that went into the tray too.
My father, moving much more slowly than my mother, was still untying his shoes.
My mother spryly moved her way through the line, putting more and more distance between herself and my father. I stood, helplessly, at a rope barrier watching.
A security guard stood near me. “Excuse me,” I said to him. “My mother has Alzheimer’s and she is getting separated from my father at the checkpoint.”
He glanced in the direction I pointed, shrugged, and said, “I can’t really do anything about that.”
Even as I spoke with him, I could see my mother pass through the checkpoint and grab her jacket and shoes. My father was still by the trays.
“I really need to get in there to help her,” I told the guard.
He shrugged again, unmoved. “I can’t do anything,” he repeated.
My mother had her shoes on as my father was walking through the metal detector. She was heading out of my sight down a corridor. “Please, sir,” I begged the guard.
“Next time ask for a pass to accompany them through the gate,” he said, but he refused to make eye contact with me. He stared resolutely ahead. I felt like I was talking to a wall.
My father made it through the checkpoint and I could see him sitting to put his shoes on. My mother was nowhere in sight. There was, quite literally, nothing I could do.
I watched him finish tying his shoes and slowly move down the same corridor where my mother had disappeared. I felt like I had swallowed a boulder. The security guard, impassive, had moved away from me and was talking with someone else.
My final hope was to call my father on his cell phone. Of course, he didn’t have it turned on.
I dejectedly turned to leave, but made one last appeal at a help desk. The woman was so nice, but, of course, couldn’t help me. She offered me the same advice as the guard — get a gate pass, but it had to be done with the ticketed passenger with me; I couldn’t do it after the fact.
Of course, when I left JFK that day, I got lost in Manhattan and cried.
My father and my mother found each other in the airport. It all turned out okay in the end.
Still. Scary is an understatement for those events.
Because of situations like this, few things have built my faith more than Alzheimer’s. The rope barrier at JFK might as well have been the gulf between Lazarus and the rich man. (see Luke 16:19-31) With no way to cross it, only helpless feelings welled up inside as I stood and watched.
Prayer is my main refuge.
I am not in the hell of the rich man, though some describe care-giving in such negative terms. No, I am stuck at a rope barrier, talking not to Abraham, or an impassive security guard, but to God Himself.
I’m watching my mother as she is carried into Abraham’s bosom.
It is a slow, sometimes scary, good-bye.