Introduction To Dementia: A Nurse’s Journal

colleen grandparents

An excerpt from Colleen Lanier’s new book, The Scenic Route: Adventures in the Life of a Traveling Nurse


I was taking my world-famous, poppy-seed chicken out of the oven when the phone rang. It was my grandfather, calling from Florida, and his voice sounded strained. The fact that he was calling was highly unusual because my grandfather rarely spoke on the phone. Whenever I called, he handed the phone to my grandmother within the first minute or so, saying “Talk to your grandma.”

“What’s wrong, Grandpa? You sound worried.”

“It’s Ella. I don’t know what to do.” I had never heard my grandfather say that — he always knew what to do. Ella was my paternal grandmother, and we had a close relationship.

“Tell me what’s going on, and I’ll try to help.”

His voice shook. “She doesn’t know who I am. I walked out of the kitchen, and she asked me who I was. I think she’s afraid of me.”

“Where is she?” I was trying to think of a way I could help from 900 miles away.

“She’s in the bedroom, sitting at the foot of the bed. Every time I try to go in, she asks who I am and goes into her closet. I don’t know what to do. What should I do?” The fear in his voice was heartbreaking.

“Do you think she will pick up the phone? Maybe I can talk to her and get an idea of what is going on.” It was worth a try, I thought.

She wouldn’t take the phone from Grandpa, so I asked him to hang up, put the bedroom phone on their bed, walk out into the living room and sit on the couch. I would call and see if she answered.

It worked. Grandma answered on the 3rd ring. “Hello?”

“Hi, Grandma, it’s Colleen. How are you?”

“Just fine, darling, good to hear your voice. Are you coming over on Sunday?” She didn’t seem to know I had moved to Kentucky six months ago.

“Sorry, but no. I have to work this weekend. Is there a man walking around your condo, Grandma?”

“He’s been here all day, but I don’t know who he is. He says he’s my husband, but he doesn’t look a thing like him.”

“Can you do me a favor, Grandma?”

“Of course, I will. Anything.”

Having spent a great deal of time in their condo, I knew where just about everything was, and was able to use that to my advantage. “Could you go out into the living room and pick up that big picture sitting on top of the TV? It’s the picture taken for the church directory.”

“Okay,” my grandmother said. “Do you want me to send it to you?”

“No. I want you to look at the man in that photograph. Does he look familiar?”

“It’s your Grandpa. Why?”

I hoped this would work. “Take a good look at the man sitting on the couch and then look at that picture. Does it look like the same man, Grandma?”

“I guess so.”

“Grandma, I promise you that the man sitting on your couch is your husband and my grandpa. You don’t have to worry or be nervous. It’s just Grandpa.”

There was a brief pause, and I waited, hoping.

“Well, dear. I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. He doesn’t look a thing like my husband, though.”

“I love you, Grandma, and promise that man is your husband. Everything is just fine.”

“Okay, dear. Nice to hear your voice.”

“Can I talk to the man on the couch? Grandpa?” I could only imagine what he must be feeling.

“Okay. Will I see you on Sunday?”

“I’ll try, Grandma. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

I told my grandfather what I had said and suggested he make an appointment with their doctor. He asked if he could call again if he needed me, and I told him he could call anytime, day or night.

He called me three nights in a row, and I had the same conversation with my grandma. Each time she said, “Well, I guess I’ll take your word for it, dear” when I told her the man in her house was her husband.

On the fourth night, my grandmother answered on the 3rd ring, and when I said, “Hi Grandma, it’s Colleen,” she said, “Do I know you?”

And that is how dementia entered my life. How did it enter yours?


The Scenic Route

Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home. “Introduction To Dementia” is an excerpt from her new book, The Scenic Route, which is about her lifelong journey through nursing: the laughter, tears, joy and pain that come with the choice of serving others. The books are available at

6 Responses to “Introduction To Dementia: A Nurse’s Journal”

  1. Michele Lusk says:

    omg hun. I am so sorry it happened that way for you. I went through it with my mommy until she passed from lung cancer. My dads mind has been fading for quite a while and he took a major fall one month after mommy left us. With the trauma, surgery, morphine and rehab, we thought we would never get him back. We thank God everyday that he still knows us. He can’t remember to use his walker, change himself or any of the daily activities that he used to do. I am very tired. He fell last week and just 2 hours ago I was outside for a breath of fresh air and he comes trotting out without his walker, started to fall and landed on my outdoor chair and broke it. Thank God the chair was there or he would have fallen through the sliding glass door. Please stay strong. I will be praying for you and your grandparents. Positive reinforcements like old music they both loved, pictures and lots of love help……God bless you.

  2. Terri says:

    My dad had started to forget things though at the time we all thought nothing of it. A phone call where he ended by saying ” love you daughter” or not paying for gas. The town he lived in was small and would call my brother. Until one day, dad went to the city for parts and ended up in another state…..with a speeding ticket, an assault charge cuz the officer wanted his license and insurance, and cuz dad couldn’t remember his name. We had a very few weeks before dad forgot who we were and who he was. Dementia/Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease that can strike with little warning. We are dealing now with my aunt who is only 56 and has been diagnosed with dementia. Again…very cruel and so hurtful and sad!

  3. Melody foster says:

    My mom was living independently until she had prolapse bladder surgery. When they sent her home she was walking in circles, pulled out her catheter and ended up spending 10 days in the hospital. She slept all day and would wander the hospital disturbing her roommate all night. I kept calling the dr. Asking what happened to my mom? Had she had a stroke? Was she given too much anesticia during the surgery? I cried every day! I got NO answers. Of course they never admitted fault but my life changed as did moms that day. She became totally dependent on me for meals, bathing, dressing, her medication, everything. She slept all day and was up every hour all night long. That’s when I started hearing sundowners from a nurse. I thought she had her days and nights mixed up so I would try to keep her awake during the day in hopes that she would sleep at night. But it didn’t help. She would get mean, she cried all the time. It just tore me up because there was nothing I could do to pacify her. Very sad. She passed away in April. I think too many doctors aren’t trained to care for the elderly with dementia and Alzheimer’s. They act like you’re hysterical daughter and don’t answer your concerns. It’s a very helpless feeling.

  4. MargaretMary Sweeney says:

    oh my Coleen so sad……..its such an inhumane disease

    my MOM had dementia……i used to lay on her couch after my Dad went to heaven
    id look over at her and say” HelloMother’
    shed answer……………….:Hello Daughter’

    did she know it was me?? i sure hope so

    i miss her and my DAD i lived with them and my grandson I Lived with them the last 10 years of their life
    so i feel for you

  5. Kim White says:

    Someone else suggested that I take a look at your blog.
    My in-laws (88 & 85) have been living with me for nearly 3 years. We knew before they moved in that my MIL had dementia, but we learned that first week that my FIL also has it. Up until then, he was still driving. He went to a club meeting and got lost on the way home. He drove for 36 hours around the Chicago area trying to get his bearings. The police found him driving on the wrong side of a major highway at 4am. And that, was our first clue.
    Every morning I have to explain to my MIL who I am and how she got here. My FIL still knows who people are, but can’t make decisions. My MIL has been incontinent for 2 years. She was a wanderer until she fell a year ago. She spent 2 months in the hospital. She can walk in the morning thru afternoon while holding my hands. By bedtime I use a wheelchair for her. My FIL entered into the world of wearing Depends this past weekend.
    Needless to say, I left my job a year ago. I rarely get out, so it’s nice to connect with others in similar situations on the net. My husband’s job takes him out on the road a lot. I do get a little relief 3 days a week for 5 hours each day. That is usually nap time or take a shower without worrying someone will fall time.
    Good luck,
    Kim White

  6. Thank you, Ladies, for taking the time to write. I like to believe it is just a tiny bit easier when we know we are not alone. So many are on this path, and I wish you every moment of happiness possible. It is those little moments that keep us going. Bless You! Colleen

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