Movin' On with Nellie: Singing woke up her eyes


June is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. According to the Alzheimer’s Association “5.7 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s in 2018.” By 2025, the association expects a 29 percent increase in that number. 

“Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia,” Alz.org says, that “causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.”

Chances are pretty strong that you know someone who has Alzheimer’s. President Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer’s and so did Peter Falk of Columbo fame. Famous women who have had Alzheimer’s include: Rita Hayworth, a dancer and actress from the 1940s; Rosa Parks, civil rights activist; Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Britain; and Dear Abby (aka Pauline Esther Phillips – the sister to Ann Landers.)

Aunt Leona had Alzheimer’s and her battle with it began with questionable decision making like when she sold her house and moved to be closer to her son. She fidgeted and endlessly searched her purse. Her behavior started to reflect her memory loss when she became lost in my neighborhood one Spring and another time when she forgot the steps to using a washing machine and flooded the kitchen. She felt so badly and didn’t understand. 

A few years later she was in adult day care and enjoyed the friendships. She began giving away her jewelry and claiming others’ trinkets as her own. I noticed some pieces of my own missing and found them in her dresser. We’d go for car rides and she believed we were in her hometown and she wanted to see her mother. Sometimes she believed someone was in the back seat or in another vehicle following us. There were other times when she would cry out, “I don’t know what is happening!” 

One winter day, she was out the door walking down the country road, lost. She tried to eat her prescription cream instead of applying it to her arm. She bit whoever tried to take that tube away from her. 

When she was moved to a nursing home, she had to stay in the secure unit and ambled with her walker up and down, and finding her room was a riddle. There came a time when she couldn’t feed herself, and so she didn’t try to escape anymore either. 

Singing to her woke up her eyes and we could hear her voice as she sang along. My mom was in Galveston then and I would arrange a call from her, “Ah yes, Dorothy is my sister,” my aunt would say to her. When she lost some of her ability to talk, she still had her Spanish and could still carry on a conversation. Then she started not recognizing her family; and because the staff spent more time with her, she responded less and less to family. 

On one of her last days, I sat next to her and clasped her hands as I sang her favorite songs; What a friend we have in Jesus and Jesus loves me. She squeezed my hands to the beat like she recognized the song somewhere in her mind. 

It’s been 11 years since she died because of Alzheimer’s. When I was 4 or 5, I remember her passing me a half a stick of Juicy Fruit gum on Sundays in the wooden church pew; and I remember how she encouraged me to grab hold of her skirt, so I wouldn’t get lost leaving the church. She made fried chicken on Sundays and packed us kids lunches when we scouted the wilderness in the back yard for rabbits and birds. She came to my rescue when I moved into new quarters by giving me curtains for all the windows; and when I had a toddler to feed and clothe, she and my mom drove to garage sales to rummage through children’s clothes for jeans, t-shirts and Sunday clothes for him. Unquestionably, she was my second mom. 

Research is progressing on curing the disease that robs the mind and maims families; but as I have said in this column before, I am so honored that I was able to bring moments of laughter to her as she traversed the disease. I’m so thankful for my Aunt Leona.

—Nelda Curtiss is a retired college professor who enjoys writing and fine arts. Contact her at [email protected]

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