“What do you mean, she’s a hero?” I asked my mother, eyeing the elderly woman in her care, Z. This person did not look or act like a hero. No, living with Z was like having a tantrum-spewing, attention-hogging little sister who happened to be 70.
“Well, do you remember when we talked about World War II?” my mum replied.
Z was halfway up the street, ruining a landscaper’s day. She was bent over, knocking pedestrians aside with her rump as she methodically ripped every bright yellow daffodil out of a raised flowerbed. It had been lovingly prepared. In Z’s wake, it was just dirt.
I remembered what my mother had told me, about how her Jewish family left Europe before the war.
We were following a few feet behind Z, giving our practiced apologetic looks to passers by.
“That’s right,” she said. “But lots of other people needed rescuing. Z lived in Holland, which was one of the first places the Nazis invaded. So she rescued Jewish babies.”
At the age of 10, I had a hard time imagining this batty old lady rescuing anyone. We walked in silence for a little while.
I felt weighed down by the enormity of the Holocaust. There was a lot I hadn’t been told, and I had trouble putting meaning to what I did know. I wiped water from my eyes as I watched Z bumble into another unsuspecting person. I didn’t know why I was suddenly so sad.
We caught up to Z. She turned to a woman beside us. “You’ve got a big bottom!” she shouted
My mum panicked: “Oh yes, I know, I’ve been eating too much cake!”
Huffing, Z snapped: “Not you, her!”
Z never talked about her life. Conversations were limited to topics that were immediately happening, or our efforts at trying to divert her away from innocent flowerbeds. So to find out more, and to provide me with context, mum asked Z’s family.
They regaled her with tales of the dire situation in Holland. Hiding entire families for the foreseeable future had been an untenable proposition for Z, so she smuggled babies out of danger by posing as their mother. Most famous among her family was an incident I wish I knew more about. On the verge of being discovered, she had seduced a soldier to protect the baby in her charge. At the time I hadn’t thought to ask more. Now, the complexities of that situation fascinate and disturb me. Seduction feels like the wrong word. Could it have been anything but forced? Was the trauma in Z’s past surviving through the Alzheimer’s?
Z’s Alzheimer’s was moderately advanced. My mum was a live-in caregiver and had to constantly re-introduce herself to her charge. Though she didn’t recognize me Z was quick to accept my presence, calling me “the boy.”
Contextualizing her behavior was an experimental effort to help both of us adjust to the new living situation. Trying to correct Z’s dementia-related delusions only sparked a paranoid episode. So we had to learn emotional intelligence to make her feel heard and understood. It was the best way to improve her quality of life.
One night I was sleeping lightly, having learned not to commit to resting until Z had been by to open and close all the doors. The familiar rustling of slippers approached.
In retrospect, the sign on my door may have been a bad idea.
With a vaguely curious shout, Z read it:
“’Shush. Ben is … Sleeping. Please. Be, Quiet.’ Oh. Okay!”
The door creaked open, and the slippers shuffled into my room. The light flicked on.
“Are you asleep?” Z shouted.
“Yeeeeeeees!” I groaned.
“OH.” Z started to pick bits of fluff from the carpet.Just as she was heading for the door, the cat wandered in.
“HELLO MEISJE CAT. ARE YOU A GOOD DOGGY?”
As I waited for her to lose interest in the cat and find a trail of fluff that lead out of the door, I began to think.
The context I had been given about her life allowed me to see the genuine intent behind her actions. In her past life, nights were tense. There were people hiding in her house. The thought that lead her to my door—that was concern. She was making sure I was safe.
The next evening, a car went by. Headlamps glared into the room, drowning out the light of the TV. Z rose as quickly as she could and started to shut the curtains. Then she forgot why, spied some carpet fluff, and blocked the TV. But I had seen the fright in her eyes. I thought of occupied Holland, and the moment became poignant.
My mom and my new understanding of Z had noticeable positive effects on her care. Identifying her emotional journey gave us real connection with her, if only for fleeting moments at a time. Episodes caused by delusion seemed less severe.
Some studies are showing that rates of dementia are going down. But the precarious position of healthcare in America is making elderly care a stressful topic for many families. Keeping up with the shifting legislation and what it means for family healthcare can be overwhelming. Often, the responsibility of care falls, at least in part, upon the families of the afflicted.
The sort of contextual approach my mum taught me as we navigated Z’s Alzheimer’s can be a form of advocacy for the concerns of veterans who are aging with trauma, and for all families struggling with dementia. There’s no fix for dementia, but the right approach can help sufferers live their final years with dignity, and ease the strain on their families.
As Z began to forget more and more of her achievements, it became more and more important for me to remember and honor them.
I began to see Z as a hero. I still wonder: Did she spend her final years saving me from the Nazis?