Sarah Markus was always telling jokes.
We laughed together constantly. As I grew up, we developed a routine: Grandma would tell a joke, I would laugh and she would respond, “I love you Bareket. I’ve trained you so well, you laugh at all my jokes.”
Sarah was a bright, lovely woman. Born in 1917, she arrived in Canada from Poland at the young age of 4 and picked Dec. 4, the first day of Hanukkah, as her birthday.
And for the last five years of her life she lived with dementia.
Caring for Sarah was challenging for my whole family, but even in her deteriorating state, Grandma maintained her sense of humor. She joked with young male doctors about taking her out on a date, quickly following up with a comment about her beautiful eligible granddaughter.
It’s difficult to find humor in the face of dementia, but it can bring lightness to the heaviest situation. Sarah, for example, had a very funny moment during her illness – even if she wasn’t aware of it. I share the story for two reasons: I hope it helps others find humor and lightness as they care for a loved one living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. And because it would have made Sarah laugh.
My grandmother smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 60 years. Whenever we went to the apartment where Sarah and her older sister, Lillian, lived, my grandma would go in her bedroom when she wanted a cigarette and I would keep her company. I remember when I was really young, we would sit in the corner of her bedroom and I’d try on her jewelry and we’d talk about how incredible life would become when I learned how to read. I loved having her all to myself.
By 2008 when she was 91, Sarah had deteriorated significantly. She rarely got dressed or left the apartment. Her cognitive function was low. Her elderly sister was the primary caregiver, and even though Lillian had given up smoking in 1977, and even though my mother hated Sarah’s smoking, we used to buy cigarettes by the carton so that Lillian wouldn’t have to leave Grandma alone in the apartment to buy cigarettes.
One afternoon, we must have fallen behind in our deliveries because as Sarah and Lillian were sitting on the couch watching TV, Sarah said, “Lillian, where are my cigarettes? I want a cigarette.” Lillian responded, “Don’t you remember? You quit smoking 20 years ago.”
My grandmother thought about this for a moment, and then responded, “Oh, I must have forgot, I can’t remember things as well I used to.”
And she never smoked again.
Story by Bareket Kezwer