Mondays With Mother: An Alzheimer's Story

In 2002 my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It is a hard road, and we live it one day at a time. This is a chronicle of her disease and my Monday visits with her.

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Name: Anne Robertson
Location: Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States
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Monday, April 11, 2005


When I arrived at The Birches today, Mother was out like a light. Several aides were down in that hallway cleaning out Carl's room. He died last week. Apparently he had surgery and did not recover. One of the aides came down to Mother's room to say hello. We talked for a bit before Mother woke up.

The aide told me that the reason I was seeing new workers on the floor was that they rotate them into different neighborhoods periodically. She also told me that Mother had been to exercise after a not-so-restful night. When they came to dress her this morning, they found she had been very busy during the night. She had on a pair of slacks with her pajama bottoms over them and lots of piles of random things all over her bed.

I have noticed that her stuffed animal collection is growing. Hopefully someone is bringing them to her and she is not just collecting them from others. Her shoes were in an interesting arrangement on the floor. No pair was together, but they were obviously intentionally placed in a pattern. One black shoe was missing it's mate, which I found under the bed. It had a single, clean sock in it.

Eventually, Mother woke up, and it was time to head down to the dining room for lunch. She seemed anxious about going down there. There was something in her room that she thought she had to take care of first. She went into the bathroom, but that didn't seem to be it. I assured her we had taken care of everything and eventually she was willing to go. She was either more disoriented than usual, or she was still trying to figure out whatever she thought needed arranging. It took quite a bit to get her to the dining room rather than into someone else's room.

We sat with Harold again, who was eventually brought to the table by another aide. She was bringing him by the hand, although he wasn't exactly trotting along beside her. He brightened up when he saw us and sat down, not exactly sure why he was there. They poured him a glass of milk. He held it up and looked at it. "It's not Scotch," he said.

As we waited for lunch, I tried to find out more about Harold. I asked him what he did before he retired. "I'm not retired," he said. I asked him what he did before he came here. He was silent for quite awhile. "I think I went to school," he said eventually. Harold is also quite deaf, and my questions to him were confusing Eleanor at the next table who thought I was speaking to her.

Then Eleanor began to cluck. She really could do a pretty good chicken imitation, but it was wearing on her table mates. "Stop it!" said one of them. Eleanor considered this for a moment. Then she clucked some more. There's a new woman who sits at that table named Etta. She seems pretty with it and also appears to be a peacemaker. She tried explaining to Eleanor that others were troubled by her clucking. Eleanor considered this also. Then she began clucking again. "If you keep on clucking," said Etta, "they're going to think this place is full of chickens and they won't let us stay here." This innate wisdom made sense to Eleanor and the clucking ceased.

In the meantime, Mother had eaten her salad and was trying to decide whether she wanted stuffed shells or ham. The aide brought both plates so she could see them. I know she's not really fond of ham and has always liked pasta, so I said, "Why don't you try the shells. It's kind of like the ziti you always liked to eat." She thought for a moment. "I think I've outgrown that," she said. She took the ham.

But she ate almost nothing. She poked around at her food. "I don't like ham," she said. She didn't like the rice either and ate a few green beans. I asked if they had any bread, and they brought a piece of garlic bread. She nibbled at that a bit, but then proclaimed she didn't like the green things on it. I got her a stuffed shell to see if she would eat that. She poked at it suspiciously with her fork. They brought her some white bread with butter and she took a bite of that.

The nurse came and brought her medicine. "You're not eating much today," she commented. "I'm not particularly enthusiastic about this combination," Mother replied. She did, however, eat her dessert. So did Dot, who was at the back table with Carl's wife and two other women. Dot was not eyeing the dessert of others at her table. "Can I have that?" she asked one of the other women at her table? "No," came the reply. "Can I have that orange?" "No." Dot persisted, never missing a beat, asking repeatedly for everything that was still on the table. "When are they going to bring me some?" she asked, sitting in front of her empty dish.

The group at Dot's table was now much more agitated than Eleanor's table had been with her clucking. "Go back to your room," said one woman. "I'm not interested in that," said Dot. "Leave," said another woman. "Why?" said Dot. "Because you're being a pain in the butt," said another. The conversation went on like that for some time, getting louder. Finally, one of the women went to a higher authority, and one of the aides escorted Dot to her room.

As soon as Dot was gone, her table began plotting. "We're going to make a sign to put at our table so she can't sit here again," declared one. "She's been to all the other tables," said another. "I think it's our turn." "We'll take away a chair so there won't be room." And so the scheming continued as Dot went back to her room and promptly fell asleep in her chair.

When Mother had finished dessert, we decided to take a walk outside. So we went back to her room to get her coat. When we returned, Eleanor was blocking the direct path to the outside door with her wheelchair. She had also managed to back into Harold and had him trapped at one of the tables. As they maneuvered that, we went the long way around to come at the door from the other side. As we came down the other hall we found Harold, who had freed himself and was now contemplating a yellow sign in the middle of the hall that proclaimed "Caution, Wet Floor" in both English and Spanish. The trouble was, the sign was standing on perfectly dry carpet. I don't know why it was there, and neither did Harold. He read it over and over, then looked at the carpet below and wondered. We left him to his wondering and went outside.

The day was sunny, but kind of chilly, so we headed into the building at the upstairs level, going in the wrong door and setting off an alarm which created a stir in The Ridge, the neighborhood where we entered. Eventually we got back down to The Courtyard and to Mother's room. We said a prayer, I put on some music for her, and I headed for home.

Community is a hard thing. Perhaps it seems extra hard when someone is clucking or demanding your dessert, but I'm not sure the community at The Birches is all that much harder than community is anywhere. When we lose our minds we do strange things, but when we have their minds, we can often be more difficult still. I don't know of anywhere that community building is easy. Whether we are healthy or sick, old or young, married or sharing a prison doesn't matter. It still takes a lot of forgiveness, grace, and patience to be in community with others. Community is hard work, no matter what your age and stage. It's just that when you get to a stage like the residents of the Birches, it becomes obvious who learned the lessons of community earlier in life and who did not. Eleanor's table ended their meal in peace, thanks to Etta's good sense and kindness. Dot's table fellowship ended with ex-communication. Score one for the chickens.


Blogger Gail Rae said...

Excellent meditation on community! Here, here!

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