Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Baby Beacon

4-Generation Photo. Clockwise from left: Grandma, my mom, my Little Oma and me

This past Tuesday, my mom, Emmett and I went to visit my grandma at Shalom Manor (a home for the aged) in Grimsby. Tuesday was my grandma’s 83rd birthday.

She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, and has been living in Shalom Manor ever since. In a nutshell, Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease and one of the most common forms of dementia. Thinking and memory are seriously impaired over time. As the years have progressed, so has the disease, and now Grandma mostly speaks an unintelligible hybrid of her native Dutch and English, and she only recognizes a handful of people, most of the time. Suffice to say that these past years have been difficult for our entire family (i.e. all of Grandma’s children and grandchildren)—and “difficult” is a gross understatement. It’s not easy watching a relative lose her mind, all the while realizing neither the scope of what she has lost nor the implications of losing it.

I have especially thought about the impact Grandma’s dementia has had on her children, and thus Danielle and I have written a song about her (stay tuned: the song will be on our next Zusters album).

My mom suggested that Emmett and I come along with her on Tuesday because Grandma, like many elderly people, loves babies. You bring a baby into an old age home and you would think a beacon was shining over the baby’s head, radiating joy and excitement throughout the building. Everyone looks, everyone smiles, everyone raises his/her speaking intonation and everyone walks away with an easier step.


I hadn’t seen Grandma in a while (several months), so I noticed that her beautiful bright green eyes (seriously, her eyes are gorgeous) were farther away, her stoop was more pronounced and she resembled more and more an empty shell of a person.

My cousin Cheryl (the Care Coordinator for the Gardens Apartments at Shalom) walked with us to pick up my grandma from her wing of the home. We found Grandma and asked her if she’d like to come for a walk to sit downstairs for a little while. She said, “OK” without hesitation. Cheryl commented to me that it’s interesting that Grandma so readily agreed to follow a group of "strangers" to wherever they decided to lead her. Her reaction was very childlike.

Another woman in Grandma’s wing noticed Emmett immediately, and she started stalking towards us with one arm outstretched, saying, “baby.” We stopped so she could squeeze Emmett’s cheek. You’d think Emmett was Shirley Temple or something, the way residents were gawking.

This is where my story gets interesting and why I chose to write about this incident. We sat in chairs around a table, and my mom was holding Emmett. Emmett was being his usual cheerful self: banging on the table, pulling off his socks and eating them, squealing occasionally and smiling profusely. Grandma couldn’t take her beautiful, green eyes off Emmett. I don’t know that she blinked at all. Then Grandma commented to my mom that she (my mom) had to be careful when holding the baby because he was squirming a lot and “you don’t want to drop him.” Wow. Kind of lucid for a woman at her stage of Alzheimer’s, isn’t it?

Emmett changed hands and sat in my lap next, where he was playing with Sophie (the giraffe). He dropped Sophie on the floor, and immediately Grandma told me to be careful not to give Sophie back to Emmett because the floor could be dirty and then dirt could get in his mouth and “that’s not good for him.” Another lucid moment.

What interests me is that to a person with Alzheimer's disease who is generally not lucid, a baby can "activate" brief moments of lucidity. All of a sudden Grandma remembered little things about taking care of a baby—things she practiced several decades ago. All of a sudden Grandma’s day brightened—just by watching a baby play for half an hour. One of the staff told my mom that Grandma would be happy for the rest of the day. Of course, Grandma had no idea that Emmett is actually her great-grandson, but that didn’t matter. I wondered what it was about Emmett—about babies—that was able to create a clear path to information that cannot normally be reached. Was it because the information about caring for a baby was originally second nature to her that just the visual of a real baby was needed to trigger that information? For someone who doesn't speak very clearly anymore, I also wondered how Grandma was able to so clearly express her "baby care tips" to us. It's one thing to be able to recall's another thing entirely to be able to recount what you've recalled.

You know how babies and small children seem to have an understanding with each other? Like on some level, they realize they are both of the same developmental age? I suppose Grandma and Emmett are on a similar mental plane. (Didn't Jerry Seinfeld have a comedy segment in which he talks about all the similarities between your first and last birthdays?) Grandma and Emmett are both sort of aware of what’s going on, but not completely. They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t really talk. They are entertained by simple things. They radiate childlike innocence. I wondered if my grandma has an understanding with Emmett—like she understood that they are more similar to each other than she is to me, to Cheryl or to my mom.

This event was a great reminder to me of how the pure innocence and joy of a baby is like a magnet. Regardless of how much someone’s thinking processes and memories have deteriorated, the sweet, simple lightthe bright positivityof a baby is still understood on some level. In fact, as in Grandma’s case, a baby brought forth brief snippets of lucidity in someone who barely seems to think at all. 

I’m going to make more of an effort to take Emmett to visit Grandma more often.

For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, follow the link below to the Alzheimer Society of Canada’s web site:


  1. Another beautiful post. I love your writing style you have a great way of wording things. We experienced this same thing with Jason's grandma who was very protective of our two girls when they were little even when she reached a similar place. We found she also responded to music (at church she could sing old hymns and even tried to pick up on the newer choruses) and the in-laws dog Toby, who's very gentle by nature.

  2. I love this, Christina! Thanks for making me all emotional first thing in the morning! ;)

    Emmett is really a special and joyful little baby and it's amazing that he can bring your Grandma so much joy too. I wonder if maternal instincts never really go away, despite Alzheimer's or whatever. It's like it's something innate that has no connection to the brain pathways. Just another mysteriously wonderful aspect of being a woman!

    When my Beppe was alive and in Shalom, we'd bring Oliver to see her and the residents LOVED him. Can you imagine how ecstatic they'd be if you brought Emmett AND Lucy? :P

    PS: that photo is friggin adorable!

  3. OK yes I just realized that my prior comment made no sense because - Alison - you just said that Oliver was allowed at Shalom! I will try to bring Lucy with me next time, too! Anyway, thank you both for your comments: I'm glad you were able to relate to my story. I love hearing feedback...especially when it comes from such talented writers as yourselves!