10/04/2012 11:41 am ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

My Mother's Ghost

My wife's phone rings and we all know who it is. No one reaches for the phone, but my son takes a look.

"It's Grandma... again."

"Don't answer it, please."

The phone rings two more times before voicemail picks up. It's the third time in an hour that my mom has called and now we're in the middle of dinner, so I tell the kids that I'll call her back but I really don't want to. My mother has been in an assisted living community for a year and her Alzheimer's-induced dementia has steadily spirited her away. She no longer knows what day it is, much less her grandchildren's names, where we live, my wife's name or how long she's been in her community. So when we talk we often have the same conversation. Where do you live, do you have kids? What are their names, how old are they, are they in school and so on. It's as if I'm talking to her ghost, a thin, wispy version of herself that no longer has mass or substance. The same conversation, sometimes two or three times a day, every day for weeks on end. It's tedious and heartbreaking.

For three years I was the chef at a grand, multi-disciplinary retirement community. The community was easily mistaken for a resort, our landscaping was impeccable, the service was top-notch and our executive director, Karen Nichols, desired for nothing less than to rewrite the book on dementia and elder care. Our memory care unit utilized all the latest research and therapy in caring for our memory-impaired residents. We offered the finest care money could buy, yet it was rare that a family member ever visited their loved one in memory care. That was something money couldn't buy, and it often pained me. Most of our folks in memory care came from our local community, yet their own families couldn't find the time to visit. Why? I had a hard time understanding until my own mother slipped into the fog of dementia. Her memory was slowly fading but I didn't realize how bad until we spent time with her. About two years ago we had driven home for a week-long visit. We were there all week, cooking and cleaning and driving her around to see friends. We took her to lunch and church and antique shopping and even made a chocolate cake for her. After seven days we drove home and when we arrived back in South Carolina, I called her to let her know we were "home."

"Oh that's wonderful John, I'll go open the front door!"

"Uh... no mom, we're home in South Carolina."

She struggled to understand and was very embarrassed so I didn't quiz her, just thanked her for the time together. I said goodbye then wiped the tears from my eyes. The memories of our visit were gone, as dandelion blossoms in April they had already floated away on the softest breeze. The next day at work I confided to my boss that I understood why we rarely have visitors in memory care -- it's just too painful. And a few months later, my mother was moved into an assisted living community.

Recently there's been a push to reclassify Alzheimer's as Type 3 diabetes, and I'm all for it. Too many of us don't realize how important a balanced diet really is and it's a daily struggle, even at my house. I cook a lot, my wife cooks a lot and the kids often help but they're still tempted by a gauntlet of fast food marketing and cheap calories. A friend of mine, Dr. Thomas Mosley, is doing cutting-edge research on Alzheimer's in Jackson, Mo. and he's been working on this for years. Sadly (due to inadequate funding and climbing incidence rates), our country's Alzheimer's death rate is climbing while death rates for other diseases such as heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, stroke and AIDS have dropped. To make matters more intriguing, my mother was always in good shape and was usually careful about her diet so I can't say that she would fit into the Type 3 classification, but nevertheless I believe Dr. Mosley is on the right track.

And I've learned. Now when I talk to my mother I dialogue her, tell her about my day and the weather, remind her she has grandkids that love her and how old they are. I try not to ask questions because she'll only get confused searching for answers that are no longer in her brain. For those few minutes, my words give her memories and substance. And when she calls back 30 minutes later I try to take a deep breath, ask God for a little patience and understanding... then answer the phone.

For more by John Malik, click here.

For more on Alzheimer's, click here.