Addiction and dementia: Tragedies for young and old

Betty BeanFeature

Tomorrow morning Mama’s going to wake up in a nursing home. She won’t know why.

It will be two weeks and a day since the sudden death of her grandson John, who assisted his fiancée, Dianne, as Mama’s caregiver.

Mama doesn’t know that, either. Dementia’s a relentless beast, but perhaps not entirely devoid of blessings.

John and Dianne lived with Mama in the big old family home in the country. John, who’d always loved the place, had moved in three years ago when his father (my brother Butch) was diagnosed with leukemia. John cared for his dad during his illness, and stayed with him 24/7 during his last long hospital stay. Toward the end, he was joined by Dianne, and they both impressed the rest of us with their attentiveness and skill. They became engaged the following year.

More recently, John has been taking a course to become a licensed electrician and seemed to be excelling at it. He also had a lawn care service. Dianne took care of Mama. She cultivated a beautiful garden – healthy vegetables bordered by a burst of bright flowers – tended to their growing pet menagerie and revealed herself as a fabulous cook. Most importantly, she did a spectacular job with Mama (it’s odd and painful to speak of all that in past tense). She called her Grandma.

For a while, it was puppies and flowers and home-grown tomatoes. Their second year there, they learned to make pickles.

The changes in Mama, 97, came slowly, almost imperceptibly. She was able to care for my father, who died in 2011, without giving her worsening mental state away. She also cared for her sister, who was dying of kidney failure. She is Puerto Rican, and it has always seemed fitting that her name – Mercedes – is Spanish for mercies.

The changes in John, 31, weren’t as gradual, and it wasn’t until his death that we started comparing notes, each of us learning that we weren’t the only ones he’d been hitting up for money; each of us individually noting behavioral quirks, none of us suspecting the truth.

(Note to anyone who suspects they might be dealing with a similar situation: Don’t keep their secrets. Secrets kill.)

It’s hard to know what’s going on in Mama’s head now that she’s in her eighth year of dementia – and maybe it’s been longer – she’s wicked smart and was able to fake it for quite a while, so we don’t know what she’s going to think when she wakes up Saturday morning in a nursing home. We aren’t going to be able to explain it to her.

She was asleep when two uniformed KPD officers knocked on the front door, handed Dianne his wallet and told her John was dead of a heroin overdose. We haven’t explained that to Mama, either.

He had left the house around 6, saying that he needed to go to the store, and died a couple of hours later in a house in East Knoxville. We’re not quite sure whose house, because details have been so hard to get. We hear that accomplices to drug deaths are being prosecuted now, but we’re in the dark. Absent any details, we suspect he got hold of a dose of fentanyl.

Dianne, despite her pain, has graciously stuck around to take care of Mama while we looked for a solution. Luckily, we found one right away. I felt like kissing Jessica Byrge, the executive director of Oakwood Senior Living, when she told me they have a vacancy and quoted me a number we can afford. The fact that it’s just a few blocks from my house seems borderline miraculous.

But as great a relief as it is to find a safe, pleasant place for Mama, it’s eclipsed by the sadness of preparing to sell the home where she raised us.

We’re all struggling under the weight of two of the great afflictions of our time – dementia and addiction – one excruciatingly slow and one blindingly fast. Killers at opposite ends of life’s spectrum.


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