the healing muse

Volume 12, 2012

Visiting Alzheimer's

Donna L. Emerson

9:30 a.m.

Jack’s wife Clementina finds him at 2 a.m. running through their apple orchards. “A stone’s throw from the freeway,” her voice breaks as she signs the papers for Jack’s placement in the Alzheimer’s care home. She fears not only for his safety, but her own. “Jack hears messages on the radio and starts rambling. Then he runs. I can’t keep up with him. Nobody’s sleeping.”

All six feet of Jack stand up. He reaches to the shelf above his television for two Life magazines “—from the War—I took these.” He points to two sepia-toned black and whites, soldiers in Paris, brilliantly captured by his field camera at close range. “Used available light,” he breathes deeply, his chest raises a little.

“He got awards for those,” Clementina softens, smiling. Her wiry hair calms down as she presses both sides of her head. She’s trying to look like herself.

“These are breathtaking,” I say. Jack and I talk photography for a minute, when Jack returns to a wandering tale about the clock behind me. I wonder if someday I’ll be sitting like this with my husband signing papers to put me in ‘a home.’ Me showing some social worker I never met, who I once was. Who I still am.

10:45 a.m.

Seventy-nine year old Molly walks around the farm kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, while her children talk to me about “putting her in a home.” After a few minutes, eyes never landing on any person in the room, but her head cocked, listening, Molly’s walk becomes a run. The cupboard doors slam more loudly with each turn. While her daughter says “We’ve been held captive for a year,” Molly approaches me and pinches me sharply on my forearm. Her short white Dutch bob nods with her head, her eyes crinkling pleasure, at my wince.

Now a new rhythm, with every lap around the big kitchen, doors slam, then she pinches me in a new place. “You don’t like me, do you, Molly?” I say, rubbing my shoulder and now cheek.

12 noon

Lucia is only sixty-two and is in the bedroom packing, as I arrive. “Where are you going, Lucia?” I stand very close. “I don’t know but the bus leaves in a few minutes. Gotta get out of here.” Lucia’s niece takes her hand, quietly and pulls her to the bed. Lucia brakes her feet, like a child.

“Everything’s OK, Aunt Lucy,” she strokes Lucia’s restless arms. After seeming to quiet, like a rabbit in a thicket, Lucia jumps up, turns to me “Help, me, now!” She grabs my hand and squeezes so hard I can’t let go. Her nails break the skin on the top of my hand.

“I want to help you,” I try to calm her, slipping my hand free so I can blot the blood and talk without gasping.

1:30 pm

James lies in fetal position on his new hospital bed, with no blankets over him.

“He stop talking Monday. Don’t eat. Don’t know me no more,” his caretaker whispers in the trailer’s hallway.

The room reeks of urine. I try not to choke, touch his shoulder, “James, are you cold?” He remains still, rigidly fixed, his eyes closed. I think of concentration camps, how we all die, bodies wither, only our bones last, after all.

3:00 pm

I read poetry with the twenty-five Alzheimer’s patients at an assisted living center. Most of the group wrote poems with me at our last meeting, last Tuesday.

Helen starts, “I have been in every war.
                      Since the First War.
                      They still go on.
                      I am still here.”

Jimmy goes next: “My name in Ringo.
                             Meet me here.”
Everyone laughs. Jimmy laughs back.

Florence begins,“I fear I’m losing my mind.
                        There’s nothing else to say.
                        Proclaim it.”

Some read aloud, some ask me or an aide to read their poems, now neatly typed in large print by the Activities Director.

As we come to the end of our time, Lindy eyes Bob. Her face mischievous, dimples in full bloom. He stands up and offers his right hand to her. She puts both of hers in his and lets him lift her up to her feet. “Feels so good.” She smiles very close to his face. They can smell one another. Her eyes hold his. “Light as a feather,” he says as he winks at her.

Hand in hand, they ascend the stairs to a room they’ll likely share.

“Are they married?” I ask.

“No—just found each other here last week,” Laura tells me. “You know, the inhibitions go pretty quickly.”

Bob walks upstairs like my grandfather, slowly, deliberately, as if he has all the time in the world, with a determined smile, trusting blue eyes glancing at Lindy. She presses her body into his. At the same time he resembles a boy I knew in third grade. Face full of wonder.

“We had a woman here who had a husband at home, while she attached herself to another resident. Eventually the family took her back home because she became the talk of the town. Quite sexually active. Every family decides what’s best.”

As I drive away I think none of my clients are like the recent movies that try to heroically portray Alzheimer’s. They leave out the third and fourth dimensions. The delight at being in a group, writing. Reading or being read to. Some remember me, week to week. Some don’t, but remember something about our relationship in the moment. It may be my dress. They remember old poems by Bobby Burns. They recite Robert Frost with me. The films leave out the real laughter, the wrenching anger, the tender spots behind the running, pinching, packing to go, and the very real flirting. Alzheimer’s films want a story we all know. Most of us don’t want to really know.

I feel like running through Jack’s orchards with him. Getting on a bus to wherever it’s going. Pinching someone I don’t like because they aren’t listening to me. Going to bed with an attractive man just because it feels so good. Ringo-dingo, ring-a-ding-dingo.

My uncle Harry died of Alzheimer’s at ninety-one. He’d just listened to “When the Saints Come Marching In,” at the facility’s Valentine’s Day party. He wore his stethoscope around his neck to every meal, sometimes listening to peoples’ hearts.

Note: Names and details have been changed to protect client confidentiality in this group of home visit notes.

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