Melinda Howlett Gill was walking home from the mall when a woman suddenly approached her. An elderly woman, she was in need of directions to the hospital.
As Gill shared on Facebook, when she began to explain to the old woman how to get there, she could tell the instructions were overwhelming. Instead, Gill offered to walk with her.
While walking, the woman opened up to Gill that she had Alzheimer’s and forgets things easily. She could remember her name, Mary — although she preferred “Marie” because there were already too many Marys — and that she was from Scotland. The woman recalled her “grumpy daughter” and her “helpful son.”
As they chatted, Gill got to know Mary more closely than someone otherwise would when walking a stranger to a medical clinic:
She told me about her life before Alzheimer’s took away her memory. She told me jokes, sang a song to me called, “I Once Had a Dear Old Mother”. She told me why she needed to go to the clinic. She showed me her crazy loud finger whistle and that she could whistle just as well with her thumbs!
Along the way to the clinic, however, the woman’s lively demeanor was replaced by the grip of her affliction. Mary forgot where they were walking. By the time they got to the clinic it occurred to Gill that family would need to accompany their loved one.
Mary didn’t have a phone on her and she couldn’t remember where she left it. She couldn’t remember anyone’s number to call. After waiting for 30 minutes, the hospital refused to see Mary without a family member present, claiming they wouldn’t know how best to treat her.
Despite the setback, Mary’s shiny personality kicked in. She told Gill if she could get back to the mall she could find her way home. Mary had taken the route so many times, it was ingrained in her long-term memory.
She invited Gill to come with her for tea at McDonald’s since it was along the way and everyone knew her there:
At McDonald’s the girls all called her by name, she waved hello at a male friend on the bench and we ordered our tea.
But once again, Alzheimer’s took over. Mary got up to use the restroom, and when she came back, she didn’t recognize Gill. She asked if they were sitting together. Gill explained they were and shared that they had been together the entire afternoon:
She told me her phone number which happened to be the same as her daughter’s so I phoned her and told her I was sitting with her mother at the mall and would wait until she came to get her as I wanted to ensure she made it home safely.
Gill expected the daughter’s relief that her mother was safe and awaiting her arrival, but that’s not what came through on the other line. Instead of a “thank you,” the daughter asked to speak to her mother.
The conversation left Mary in tears.
Her daughter wasn’t coming to get her.
Her son, on the other hand, might be able to help. She explained to Gill that he monitors her movements through a GPS tracking bracelet and is generally very helpful, but she couldn’t remember his number.
Fortunately, Mary remembered where she lived for a moment. Gil took note and after finishing their tea, decided to walk her home:
We talked some more while we drank tea, she was witty, she spoke about how she was as a young lady in Scotland. Her words explained to me that she was feisty — and still is! She is kind, sweet, confused, friendly, chatty, and so starved for human connection. She was thankful to have someone to talk with and spend time with.
On the way home, Mary forgot everything. She didn’t know why she was walking with Gill, where she had been, or that she didn’t have her phone. They made it to Mary’s house not a moment too soon.
Her daughter answered the door. Gill explained the past couple of hours and that she was bringing Mary safely home. The tale annoyed the woman:
I was greeted with more eye rolls and no warmth whatsoever. There was no thank you, nothing. I don’t live with someone with Alzheimer’s so I am sure it’s complicated and difficult. But I do know that my uncle has Alzheimer’s and he is treated with love and compassion and is well taken care of…which is not what I was seeing here.
After seeing glimpses of Mary’s true self and hearing about life before her illness, Gill couldn’t help but wonder what Mary’s existence was like inside those four walls. She was hurt by how the fragile old woman was received into her own home:
I thought about what kind of a life Mary must have now. The not remembering. The dependence on others. The impatience of caregivers. The losing of the memories. The loss of short term memory. The difficulty going somewhere new. The scary feelings. The nervous feeling she told me about when she knows she should remember something but doesn’t. Her shaking hands. Her feeling stupid because she doesn’t remember like she should. The way some people treat her, even family. The sadness she feels. How she holds onto the pride she felt when she once drove a huge bus to Arizona and the whole group made it there alive.
It took everything for Gill to leave Mary in her daughter’s hands:
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there with Mary. I wanted to protect her and make her feel loved and needed and appreciated. Mary smiled and I gave her the biggest hug and told her what a lovely afternoon I’d had. As I walked away, leaving her with her daughter, I burst into tears and cried all the way home…25 minutes, I cried.
The hardest part was knowing that once Mary went back home, chances were she would forget ever having met Gill and spending the better part of an afternoon together.
Yes, I’m crying. Yes, I’m posting the photo here, because the reason I’m crying is an important one. The true face of…
The walk, the finger whistle, the tea, all those things Gill would distinctly remember about the woman who approached her would be lost to Alzheimer’s. As Gill wrote:
I’m still crying as I write this. Mary won’t remember me. Mary won’t remember the talk we had, why she went to the clinic or that she went to the clinic at all, or that we spent three hours together this afternoon. Mary won’t remember…but I WILL.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and one in three seniors will pass away with the disease. The National Institute on Aging suggests individuals charged with caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s to cope by learning about the disease, building a support network, and relying on respite care.
Although Gill cared for Mary for just three hours one afternoon, her experience speaks to the effect of Alzheimer’s on everyone it meets. As Gill wrote: “The true face of Alzheimer’s joined me on my walk today. It was a gentle entrance, but one that will leave a lasting impact.”