(c) 2010 Sherman Lambert

Blame it on seasonal weather changes, thirst, the continuous Zumba music running through my head, or the puppy (!) who will be arriving in our lives soon, but I have not been sleeping deeply the last few nights. Anyone who knows me well, knows I am prone to strange dreams anyway, but when my sleep is restless, the dreams get even more vivid.

This April (that cruelest month) I am mourning, but to tell you the truth it’s not so much the recent loss of my mother but that the dreaded disease, Alzheimer’s, took her several years ago. I lost my mother years before she died—that’s one of the harshest aspects of dementia.

Mom was always an absentminded person who often lived outside the norm. We just came to expect her to be slightly crazy. In fact, that was one of the best sides of who she was. Still, when our father died, we realized very quickly that he had been her timepiece, the person who anchored her in the reality of the world of chronos. For her, life was almost all kairos—for good and bad.

But the first time she forgot my birthday, that hurt. Still, it didn’t 100% point out that she had dementia because if she didn’t know what day it was, she couldn’t know it was my birthday. My brother always came to visit at Thanksgiving, so she remembered his birthday longer, but apparently insisted on making him a chartreuse green angel food cake since that was what he supposedly liked—I was the one who liked angel food and the green frosting only happened once, thankfully, when I turned 13 in the mid-1970s.

Looking back, we realize all the dementia checklists in the world don’t necessarily point out when something’s wrong with your loved one. Really what you need to note is when they can’t do the things they always did well. True, she was having trouble with words, but that isn’t so unusual for post-menopausal women. For her, when she started misspelling written words, that was a huge sign of change since she was pretty much a spelling snob. Still, all that’s water under the bridge of sorts for our family.

What I want now is to dream of her as she was throughout most of my life. However, I continue to have these dreams, as I have for the last three years, where she is either in need due to her dementia, or just needs help. Although the final years of her obvious dementia represent only about 5% of her days on this earth—thank God that percentage isn’t even higher—the most recent images seem burned in my brain.

In the pre-dawn hour, I dreamed she and I were at some sort of a roadside stop, such as you find in the Rocky Mountains, where tourists can linger to visit nature. There we saw this circular flagstone or other natural rock structure—water sat deep within this man-made well of sorts. While Mom was looking in, she fell headfirst. I screamed for help, though I didn’t see how there would be time for anyone to climb in before she succumbed to the water.

When my husband showed up, I implored him to do something. Sherman returned to report he had spoken with her and she said she was fine and would get herself out. She’d gotten hungry (blaming blood sugar difficulties was her consistent excuse for any mental or physical missteps and how she attempted to deflect any dementia concerns) and, pointing to a ladder on the inner wall, she would climb out herself after she’d eaten.

Maybe if she had admitted to needing help, she could have avoided some of her distress, but really, there was no way out from her dementia. She was as lost to us as if she’d fallen into a deep well. We could still see her, but could not reach her.

I’d like to think our family’s story is unique, but unfortunately in 2011, the Alzheimer’s Association released a report estimating 5.4 million Americans have the disease and another 14.9 million people function as unpaid caregivers.

I don’t have to read the report to know I am not alone. Sylvia from Deep Water class, Lenny from Yoga class, my nephew’s mother-in-law Anita—these are just a few of the people I know who are walking beside someone they love who has some form of dementia.

Supposedly some people don’t visit their loved ones often because of fear about their own possibility for getting dementia. Suffice it to say, when I stayed away I think it was due to fears about what was happening right then, but that may just be a form of denial. I remember thinking I hoped my kids didn’t have to go through what I had gone through with my mother—and then realizing that if they did, it could be because I had fallen into that well!

So, I will keep working through my own grief and doing what I can for my own brain health, and trying to find more peace in my dreams.

But the thing is it’s not just about my mom or me. We as a nation cannot afford to continue to lose all these brilliant minds—just hearing all the previous professions and past adventures of those who lived in my mother’s care center taught me how much these people had contributed to our society—nor can we afford the costs of caring for them, either financially or emotionally.

Between 2000 and 2008, deaths from Alzheimer’s increased 66%, while deaths from other diseases, including heart disease, decreased. We need to step up the research for this disease in order to both prevent it and treat it. Currently there is nothing that can pull any of us out of the well once we fall in.

But in my sweetest dreams, there really is a ladder on the inner wall, ready for us to climb at any time.