by Colleen Lanier
When your loved one is dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, the smallest of things can become quite significant. For Joan, who was like a second mom to me, it was a toothbrush.
I had known Joan and her husband, Henry, since I was in high school. Their son, Sean, was my best friend, and I became part of the family. I was in my 40s when Joan began her battle with Alzheimer’s, and when Henry’s health began to fail, Sean and I stepped in to help, traveling from Washington to their home in Wisconsin.
During one of my visits, I was puzzled by the fact that my toothbrush was wet in the morning. When Henry mentioned that Joan had taken to wandering through the house in the middle of the night, I decided to leave my bedroom door open so I could hear her approach. Sure enough, at 2:30 I woke to the sound of running water and vigorous brushing coming from the guest bathroom. It seemed that anything left on the counter, including my toothbrush, was fair game. It was just a part of being in their home, so I adapted, hiding my toothbrush when I went to bed and leaving a decoy for her nightly visits.
In the summer of 2011, I helped Sean move Joan and Henry to an assisted living facility in Washington State. Joan had reached the point where she needed constant supervision and a great deal of help with the basics of toileting and personal care. The cross-country drive was challenging, and each day it was a little more difficult to help her settle into a new hotel room. I wasn’t always successful in getting her to take a shower, but her oral hygiene was beyond reproach. Every evening she spent considerable time brushing her teeth, during the night she would use every toothbrush she found, and in the morning she brushed several times as I helped her get dressed.
After four long days we made it to Washington, arriving in the small town outside Seattle where both Sean and I lived. The four of us spent the night at my house, which was just a mile from the ALF. Joan explored my house as I unpacked her nightgown and put her things in the bathroom. I found her in my office, standing by the desk, her hands full of peppermints and packs of gum. The candy dish, which Joan and Henry had given me for Christmas 25 years earlier, was half empty.
“I see you found the candy, Joan. Are you hungry?”
She didn’t answer me, because her attention had moved to a business card holder. She stuffed the candy in her pockets and grabbed a card, reading it aloud.
“Colleen Lanier, legal nurse consultant.” A wide smile spread across her face as she held the card out to me. “I know her! I know her!”
“How do you know her, Joan?”
“Yup, yup, yup.” Whenever Joan did not have an answer, she responded with yups. I was not surprised, but couldn’t help wishing she would recognize that I was standing right in front of her.
“Are you ready to brush your teeth?” I held out my hand and she took it, letting me lead her to the bathroom.
Her toothbrush was in plain sight, but she grabbed for mine, which was kept in a hand-painted coffee mug on the counter. She traced the outline of the flower painted on its side and then tried to smell it. I put toothpaste on her toothbrush and handed it to her, smiling as she brushed with one hand while clutching the mug in the other. She ended up taking it to bed with her.
Being in an unfamiliar home did not change Joan’s nightly wandering, and by the next morning, my candy dish was empty and her purse was full of business cards. She let me help her with a bath, and when we arrived at the ALF, she was in a cheerful mood. We unpacked her possessions together, and I made sure she found her toothbrush, which was carefully placed in a coffee mug I had taken from my kitchen cabinet. When I left that evening, she was brushing her teeth and making faces at her reflection in the mirror.
A few hours later, exhausted and ready for bed, I went into my bathroom to brush my teeth. I reached for my toothbrush and was surprised to find that, as I lifted it, the mug came off the counter as well. Not understanding why, I looked into the mug and burst out laughing.
The end of my toothbrush was firmly planted in a very large mound of gum that covered the bottom of the mug. Based on the size of the wad and the number of wrappers I found stuffed in my makeup bag, I’d guess there were at least two packs of chewed gum holding my toothbrush in place. I have no idea why Joan thought of this, or how she managed it while I was in and out of the bathroom with her, but she had found a way, leaving her stamp on my home.
As Joan continued down the path of Alzheimer’s, brushing her teeth was one of the few skills she maintained. During restless hours it was one of her favorite activities, and in times of agitation it seemed to soothe her. In memory care, the suggestion that it was “time to brush” would get her into her room at night when other attempts failed. It was the one small piece of normal that dementia didn’t take from her.
Joan passed away a few months ago, and when I find myself missing her, I know exactly what to do. I reach for my toothbrush, kept in the same hand-painted mug she filled with gum, and take comfort in the thought that she is always just a brush away.
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home and The Scenic Route. Both books are available at colleenlanier.com.