Amah's Legacy of Strength and Spirit in the Face of Alzheimer's

By Luu, Clara | Aging Today, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

Amah's Legacy of Strength and Spirit in the Face of Alzheimer's


Luu, Clara, Aging Today


Every summer day in Northern California is a blessing. The sun lights up a relentlessly blue sky, the breeze whips in from the Pacific Ocean, and if the air had a flavor, it would be farm-fresh berries. As we walk to the local cabana club in San Jose, I'm grateful for this precious day in the sun, another beautiful California day I can share with my grandmother.

For the past couple of years, my Amah, my father's mother, has been living with Alzheimer's disease. But that has not stopped her from insisting upon her daily swim. Nearly every day, she takes the fiveminute stroll to the local pool, steps purposefully in the water and swims a very serious doggy paddle for an hour. As she paddles up and down the pool, I'm proud of this fragile old lady who still maintains her tough character and mischievous smile, even when she grows more frustrated day by day with routine tasks, weatherworn limbs and a fleeting memory.

Summers at Grandma's House

As I gaze at the sky, I realize my childhood was defined by summers. Summer was when my cousins and I would reunite at my Amah's house, enjoy tastes of Chinese food and culture, and spend time with our grandma. My grandma's house was a place where I could explore my heritage, appreciate stories of a faraway land and recent family experiences in the United States, and at the same time figure out my values and the proper balance between cultures. Summers tasted of fresh peaches, spices and bitter herbs; sounded like screechy Chinese soap operas; and felt like embroidered dragon patterns on silk pillows and Amah's soft, wrinkly skin.

For many summers, life was good. My Amah occupied herself in the kitchen, efficiently julienning vegetables and stirfrying them to perfection, and she enjoyed her soap operas that played on the television at a normal volume. But lately, summers are much quieter because my grandma mostly rests in a rocking chair and naps throughout the day. We don't let her cook as much anymore because we're worried she'll forget and leave something burning on the stove. She tells fewer stories and sings fewer songs; she laughs more softly and even looks softer, less suntanned and more easily wearied. The weeds rejoice at my grandma's less frequent attacks, and peaches drop and smush on the lawn faster than my Amah can pick them.

My family has noticed these gradual changes. We miss the perfectly steamed vegetables and the ability to hold a conversation without shouting over the television. …

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