Friday, January 16, 2015

Meet Shirley, in the Red Sweater

We met her coming in the front door.

We were coming in, and she was going out.  Or, at least, she wanted to be going out.

Mom and I were visiting Dad at his new Alzheimer facility, and we'd just opened the front door, for which a security code is required.  Entering the facility's airy lobby, we immediately encountered an elderly yet sprightly woman wearing a red cardigan.  Mom and I hadn't even closed the door when she began to speak.

"My husband has gone out to get the car, so before you close the door, please let me go wait for him," the red-sweatered woman requested.

She looked normal enough to me.  The sweater, her crisply-tailored slacks, her curly hair done just so, her pink nail polish and makeup properly applied; Dad had only been at this Alzheimer place a day, yet I'd already realized that just about everybody living there displays an appearance varying from modestly disheveled to unnervingly bizarre.  This woman, however, looked fine and healthy, and she spoke without the slightest hint of deceit.

Mom, nevertheless, wasn't convinced.  "I think we need to shut the door," she whispered.  So I did.

A few moments later, we met a staffmember of the facility at the other end of the lobby.

"So; you've met Shirley?" he grinned.*

Apparently, Shirley stations herself by the front door most days, and spends her time sizing up the people coming in and going out, trying to figure out who she might be able to bluff into letting her out.  "She thinks she runs the place," another staffmember joked to us, since even when she's not at her usual post by the front door, she takes upon herself the role of mother hen for her fellow residents who are far less socially proficient.

One morning, while strolling the quiet hallways searching for Dad, Mom and I met a female resident wearing a Maine t-shirt.  She was walking the halls with her husband, who is not an Alzheimer patient.  Mom grew up in Maine, and we learned that this resident also came from Maine.  Immediately, they began chatting about the towns, lakes, and regions of their childhood memories. 

Shirley happened to be around the corner; out of our sight, but not out of earshot.  Apparently, Shirley heard people talking about land and property, and she couldn't help herself:  She burst around the corner, interrupting the conversation with offers to sell her farm to whomever wanted to buy it.

Mom, this other resident, and her husband were confused.

But I burst out laughing.

I already knew a lot about Shirley's farm.  On an earlier visit, when Dad was resting in his wheelchair in the lobby, Shirley had given up her post near the front door and come over to chat with us.  Of course, having lived with a dementia patient for seven years myself, I've gotten used to filtering everything they say with skepticism, since their version of reality and history can be unintentionally distorted.  Nevertheless, Shirley was convincing in her tale of once owning a large farm, parts of which flanked both sides of a country road.  After her husband passed away, Shirley had sold the part of the farm on the other side of the road, even though the house on that piece of land was newer and modern.

"I liked the older, bigger house," Shirley explained, referring to the farmstead's original domicile, "even though I didn't need all that space.  Besides, that part of the farm was blackland, which is real good for crops.  I wanted to keep the blackland."

Made sense to me.

"Did you see my car outside?" Shirley anxiously inquired, instantly switching the subject.  "I have that brand-new Cadillac, but nobody ever drives it!  I've got that Cadillac just sitting out there!  It's still there, isn't it?"

I hadn't seen a Cadillac in the small parking lot out front, but neither did I see any harm in playing along.  "Nobody's moved it," I assured her.

"That's good," sighed a relieved Shirley.  "I've got two daughters, but they hardly ever come to see me.  Everybody's so busy nowadays. I hate having that Cadillac just sit out there with nobody driving it."

Late yesterday afternoon, Mom and I had just come through the front door into the lobby.  Our red-sweater friend had been taking another breather from her place near the door, standing instead across the room near the fireplace, and when she saw us, she came across the lobby.  At first, I thought she was going to greet us, but she walked right by us, without acknowledging us.

"My girls are coming to see me!" Shirley happily announced to nobody in particular.  "I see my girls!"

And sure enough, right behind us came a middle-aged woman and a man who was apparently her husband.  Shirley greeted the woman affectionately, but barely acknowledged the man.  By the way both the woman and man acted, Shirley's daughter and son-in-law were no infrequent strangers to the facility.  With dementia patients, however, the discouragingly short duration of their attention span denies them the comfort of knowing that loved ones are with them more often than they remember.

Dad's been at this facility for a little less than a month, and so far, Shirley is the only other resident who regularly talks with us.  Several residents are ambulatory, or can navigate their own wheelchairs, so they're moving about the facility every time we've been there, and the place is by no means deserted.  Still, the atmosphere, hijacked as it's been by Alzheimer's, is decidedly unique.

I've never before been around so many people whose brains are literally closing them off from interpersonal communication and interaction.  This facility has programs and activities that try to get its residents to participate in things together, like meals, sing-alongs, and question-and-answer sessions where residents call out words that begin with certain letters of the alphabet.  Yet only a couple of women ever verbalize their answers during the quizzes, and the sing-alongs are mostly muted mumbles by - again - just a couple of the ladies, in a room of maybe a dozen people.  And mealtimes?  From what I've seen so far, they're eerily quiet, too.

Today at lunch, for example, there was an elderly man slouched in a wheelchair alongside a dining table demanding "where's the food!" like that lady on the old "Where's the Beef?" commercials.  But otherwise, everybody was sitting quietly, and still; their faces displaying the trademark blankness of dementia.

At first, you'd be tempted to appreciate such model patience, but it didn't seem to be that they were being patient.  Being patient implies that one is exercising a certain measure of grace and tolerance while somebody else gets their act together.  No, with the exception of the one rowdy gentleman, these residents had some sort of mental button that had been set to "pause" while staffers bustled about them.

Patience is a virtue.  Blankness is simply sad.

Indeed, it's not just because of her ubiquitous red sweater that, within this sheltered tableau of crushing social dysfunction, Shirley stands out.  And to me, at least, she provides some much-appreciated relief.

Even if she herself cannot disguise her own struggles with dementia.

"I'm going to visit my mother this afternoon," she cheerfully told Mom and me the other morning.  "She's 400 years old!"

"Four hundred years old?" Mom exclaimed.

"No - she's four hundred and ten," Shirley corrected herself, as if at Mom's prompting.  "Yes - 410!  Shame on me for not remembering my own mother's age!"

"Wow," I marveled, "She's sure lived a long time, hasn't she?"

"Yes!" Shirley replied, beaming with pride in her mother's longevity.  "She's got a lot of get-up-and-go in her.  And so do I!"

And with that, Shirley grinned broadly, with a twinkle in her eye, raising a well-manicured fist into the air, like she was charging off to battle.

If only she could slay the enemy that is destroying her brain.

* "Shirley" is not her real name.

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