As told to Bonnie Sandler by Mikaela Sandler
My grandmother always had a unique personality. Nanny was not the kind of grandmother to bake cookies and cook dinners. Dining out and shopping were more her thing.
Never one to miss a hairdresser appointment, she was horrified if her nails were not perfect. Nanny has never been the easiest person to get along with. Both friends and family members floated in and out of her life. She was generous to a fault, especially with me, her “sunshine.”
I have fond memories of spending time with Nanny when I was younger. She would take my mother and me shopping for clothes and dining at her favourite restaurants —always her choice or else! We would pick her up at her apartment, where she would be waiting in the lobby, perfectly dressed. Even as she grew older and used a cane, hers was no brown wooden stick, but a shiny silver fashion accessory.
She always had trouble filtering her thoughts and this has worsened as she aged. Critical of people who were overweight, unattractive or poorly dressed, she was never restrained in her remarks. Now her insulting comments are often much louder because she is hearing impaired and doesn’t realize the world can hear her.
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Until a few years ago, our activities and visits continued as usual. I’m not sure exactly when things started to change, but dinners out to our regular Chinese and Italian restaurants became less frequent. Shopping outings stopped and she no longer cared about what she wore. The change was gradual and visits were limited to her apartment where she would be in bed watching CNN. Nanny began speaking very negatively about those around her and it was difficult to listen to the constant negativity. Despite her insisting that she was dying, doctors found no real health concerns. Because her hearing was deteriorating, I was forced to communicate by screaming or writing notes. Visits became more difficult as she often cried and talked about wanting to end her life.
Listening to her talk about death made me sad and angry. My mother would remind me that this was nothing new; she often spoke of dying and not wanting to live, except that now it was the focus of her conversation. Gradually I learned to ignore her negativity and visits with her became predictable: she began by saying how happy she was to see me, then complained that I didn’t come often enough, talked about the war, talked about dying, then the war again, and ended by handing me $50. She continued to donate money to charity and give generous tips to employees. It was probably within the last couple of years that I noticed she stopped handing out money, having any interest in food or leaving her bed much.
This past summer, things took a turn for the worse. Her long-term dependence on tranquilizers landed her in the hospital where she was eventually
diagnosed with dementia. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that she was a victim of financial abuse. No longer able to return to her apartment, she was moved to a residence and is now in a long-term care facility. While I had some understanding of dementia and mandates, it was seeing what my mother has to do as her mandatory that really pulled me out of my denial mode and moved me into accepting the new reality. I helped my mother pack up Nanny’s apartment filled with a lifetime of memories and wondered what had happened to the well-dressed woman who took us out for weekly dinners and shopping sprees.
My visits to Nanny are now to the nursing home where she lives. She knows who we are and, while she has some lucidity, I also witness her delusions, with discomfort. Many mornings she will pack her clothes and try to make her way to the elevator since the voices tell her she must leave. She is expecting Benjamin Netanyahu to send a plane to take her to Israel remembering that she was a generous and strong supporter of Israel.
She is no longer able to filter her thoughts. She makes inappropriate and degrading remarks loud enough for the entire floor to hear. I just hope people understand that it is the disease talking. Communicating with her is more difficult than ever since in addition to her profound hearing loss, she now reverts to speaking Polish.
I still make the best of our visits but the reality doesn’t always sink in as I still envision her waiting in her apartment lobby in her fur coat and designer sunglasses waiting for us to pick her up and take her out.