I knew very little about Alzheimer's disease when I began taking care of my mom, Rose Beebe, 88.
Of course, I realized her memory would continue to decline and that she would slowly deteriorate physically. I was not aware of certain behaviors that accompany this disease that affects as many as 5 million Americans.
One of the first things I noticed after Mom moved into a nearby memory-care facility was that she was hoarding things.
I started finding sea-foam-green cloth napkins from the cafeteria lying around her room. I figured they were there because she had been eating some of her meals there.
But then I started finding them on her. She would have napkins stuffed under her shirt or in her pants. Sometimes she'd have so many beneath her clothes it looked like she had a gigantic tumor. At other times she'd carry them around in her hand with a grip so tight you couldn't pry them away.
At first I couldn't wrap my brain around why she was doing this; it seemed so peculiar. She had always had a tendency to be a bit of a pack rat, but this was well beyond that.
After doing some research, I began to understand the reasons for her actions.
The brain changes in dementia cause disorientation, fear and confusion, all which can contribute to hoarding behaviors. It's believed people hoard certain items that might represent feelings of safety by their presence.
Hoarding may provide people control over a changing environment. Loss is something a person with Alzheimer's is used to experiencing, so order and routine might help increase the sense of protection.
Knowing why Mom was collecting and hiding things gave me more compassion for her. I quickly learned that if this was going to be the norm, I'd have to find the humor in the situation.
Every time I go to visit Mom now it's like a treasure hunt. I never know what I am going to find on her or in her room, and it always makes me chuckle.
On one visit, she complained her feet hurt, and I noticed she was limping. When I removed her shoes they were stuffed with plastic straws and some valentines that children from a youth group had made for the residents. I asked her why she had put these items in her shoes and she said, "Because that's where they belong."
Upon changing Mom's clothes over the last few months, I've had packets of sugar substitute fall to the floor, along with address books, a page from Jeremiah 2 ripped out of a Bible, Christmas cards that belonged to other people, a church bulletin and spoons.
Mom could run a pawn shop from her room, selling merchandise like stuffed animals, electronic poker games and a star-shaped tambourine. She also has an extensive jewelry collection. Her latest favorite pieces are Mardi Gras beads she proudly wears each time I go see her. I asked where she got them from, and she said, "I got them from the dime store. I think they're pretty. I like their long-ness."
Some of Mom's friends at the center also are avid collectors. One gentleman stuffs his shirt pockets full of paper towels until they are bulging, then crams remote controls into them. Others fill the baskets on their walkers with framed photographs or plastic cups. These dear folks take recycling to a new level.
There is one tiny lady I have deemed the facility's "feng shui specialist." She is on the move all day, constantly rearranging objects from room to room, making beds and tidying up. She doesn't say much but takes her "work" seriously.
Many times when I come to see Mom, she is sitting in a rocker with a multicolored afghan - where it came from, I don't know - that she is attached to, and almost always a napkin or two. It reminds me of when my daughter was a little girl and could not be without her favorite blankie that made her feel safe.
If having these things gives Mom that same sense of security from the anxiety she must deeply feel, that's just fine.
We all have ways of coping. Hers is just more colorful than most.
Editor's note: In Lisa Moore's column, "Generations," she writes about the challenges and healing she experiences as a member of the Sandwich Generation: those caring for a parent and a child.