Tom Gunnels’ grandmother has dementia. He recently wrote an 8,000 word essay about her disease and how it has affected his family, ending up as one of five national finalists in the 2010 Norman Mailer College Writing Awards for Creative Nonfiction. The effect of the essay was to put the issue on the table and be able to talk about it openly. It allowed the extended family to be supportive of their grandfather, who was caring for his wife at home, to meet his needs as well as hers.
Alzheimer’s disease can be very isolating for family caregivers. Isolation from family and friends can make life seem unbearable but talking openly about the disease can help overcome depression and discouragement. While Tom’s experiences with his grandmother’s illness are not unique, he was able to talk about the disease and lift the burden for his family. The pain in his writing is clear:
“There are four of us seated around the kitchen table up north at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. My sister sits across from me, stares down at her lap. My mom and grandpa on either side. Behind my sister the waves of Lake Huron crash endlessly on the beach, two empty pizza boxes on the table before us, crumbs on our plates. Grandma … (whispers) to herself as she walks through the dining room to the living room, then through the hallway that wraps around and back to the kitchen. She repeats this motion dozens of times every day. She walks a circle through the house, forgetting she had just done it, and doing it over again whispering, ‘Get them out of my house.’
“Grandpa’s face is wet. ‘No matter what you do,’ he chokes out, ‘it’s never enough.’”
What shines through his writing is the determination of Tom to walk this path with his grandfather, honoring them both with love and respect for who they were and who they are today.