Posted by: sulya | 29 March 2011

If Your 5 Year-Old Son Asks you About Alzheimer’s You Can Blame Me

That’s what I said to my friend’s husband when he got home last night. When he asked me why, exactly, his son might ask about Alzheimer’s I started with, “Well, your wife left me alone in the car with all three kids…”  And then, when this didn’t seem explanation enough, explained that on his mother’s exodus from the vehicle their son had immediately told me, in solemn tones, that a friend’s Great Grandpa had died. We all agreed this was sad, except the three year-old girl who was pretending that she was a baby and revelling in the ever-amusing word ‘poop.’ This then got us talking about who did or didn’t have Great Grandpas and/or Grandmas.

He, in fact, has two Great Grandmas but, for some reason, we wound up talking about my son’s family relations and it came up that he does, in fact, have a Great Grandma still technically alive and living in Florida.  My son immediately said that she should meet him, “We should go see her so she can meet me.”  The narcissistic construction of the sentence notwithstanding, it was a fair request.  Only, I used the words “technically alive” for a reason.  To the best of my understanding my mother’s mother is basically non-responsive and hasn’t remembered anyone or anything, really, in some time.

I started, when the kids pushed, to say that she’s alive but she’s not really “there” which is what I would say to adults who can comprehend that kind of abstraction.  But, of course, the idea that someone could be there and not there at the same time was too much for the 5 year-olds.  So, then I said, she wouldn’t know us, she doesn’t remember things.

This made more sense to them but was still at odds with what they know of anyone in the category of “grandma.”  I mean, seriously, how could any of their doting, amazing, loving, generous grandmas not remember them???

So then I started to explain that she had a sickness in her mind that took those memories.  This was starting to make a bit of sense to my friend’s son – who was on point for this particular question period – but he needed more.  That’s when I said something like this:

“Okay.  You know all the stuff that makes you who you are?  All your friends and your family and the things you did today and the things you played with yesterday and all the foods you eat and like to eat and the ones you hate?  All your memories?  This sickness makes all of those things go away.”

He paused.  Huge blue eyes even rounder than usual in his pale face.

“But where did they go?”

“No one really knows sweetie.  Not even the doctors.”

“But can she go and get them back?”

“That’s an amazing question, kiddo.  No one has figured out how to get them back really, not really.”

And then I saw an opportunity because the research I do know something about where these diseases of the mind are concerned all indicate that keeping your mind supple and firing in lots of directions can really help to ward them off.  And that’s what I said.

To a car full of kids who aren’t super good at trying new foods, who like their routines even as they bridle against them.

I told them that one thing we do know is that you have to keep trying new things with your body and your mind.  You have to do hard things,   challenging things.  You have to do things even if you don’t think you’ll be good at it because it keeps your mind strong.  I said you have to try all kinds of different music and sports and books and meet new people and try to go new places to see new things so that the mind is always busy and growing and changing.

There was a kind of silence back there…  It had a note of reverence… Like they were hearing something important.

It didn’t last and the subject was abandoned for other projects (whining about the failure to procure ice cream or play in the ball room at Ikea chief among them) but perhaps, I wonder in light of the speech I gave them, that’s a good thing.



  1. Sulya, I’ve been thinking lots about you lately. How are you my beautiful friend? I miss you.

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