by Susan Taylor Block
My mother lives in the memory care wing of a local retirement center – a handsome and well-run facility. Though each patient has serious, documented memory loss, there is so much left of their former selves to celebrate. General manners plus wit and wisdom seem to survive. So does spelling, as evidenced in an old fashioned and rather difficult “spelling bee” I attended there recently. Also, the interesting interplay of lifelong personalities doubtless mimics their specific place in groups from years past. Each individual seems to fall vaguely into customary roles such as cut-up, comforter, boss, critic, follower, or cheerleader.
In general, the ladies who frequent the unit’s living room are less advanced in disease than some others in the Alzheimer’s and dementia wing. Their faces are well-known to me now, like distant relatives grown familiar through reunions. Candid photographs of most would reveal their advanced senior citizen status, but would offer scant evidence of cognitive impairment. They have character in their faces, and they have presence. Some exhibit off-the-cuff humor. One or two of them are still masters of sarcasm, and still know how to deliver much information by facial expression alone.
The majority had been housewives during their younger days. A couple were teachers. By vocation, my mother was a business woman and, by avocation, a serious student of the starry sky. Often, Mother cited the story of the Three Wise Men as reason enough for her pursuit.
Mother seems to be a perfect example of patients who can retain startling clarity in certain ways, and strong consistency of personality amid dementia. I offer two of many possible examples:
She managed a local family-owned business for 25 years, a job that involved much typing. After someone donated a typewriter to the Memory Care unit, Mother sat down and without any prompting pounded out the words, “There will be no down time for employees today. Work through lunch.”
On another occasion, she asked me, “How long is the longest book you’ve written?”
“388 pages,” I answered.
“That’s too long. Don’t you have advisors? Why didn’t someone tell you to shorten it?” she responded.
“It didn’t need shortening,” I answered. “In fact, quite a few people said they read it twice.”
“They had to, Susan. By the time they reached the end of it, they had forgotten the beginning.”
As for the stars, Mother is still amazingly accurate. I enjoy bringing news of what I hear of planets, orbits, comets, and eclipses. She corrects me when I don’t use language that’s technically correct and requests that I keep bringing her bulletins of changes in the heavens, a subject about which she published articles in her younger days. Mother had studied business at WC, now UNCG, but one day, about 1968, decided she needed to know more math to better understand the heavens. I was a teenager taking trigonometry at Hoggard High School at the time, and, switching roles, she asked me to teach her what I learned. She mastered it quickly. I think her mind-challenging hobby from the past, and her relentless dedication to walking in recent years have helped keep some negative mental and physical processes at bay.
The Memory Care living room sports a pretty raised-hearth fireplace, and an array of sofas and chairs that accommodate about twelve people. Eight seats were filled when I visited last Sunday, December 11. That day, most of the ladies were staring at a new 5-foot tall Christmas tree, sitting atop a table. Its white lights blinked uneven patterns and the speed of it accelerated through sequences that went from no glows, to many.
The busy lights caused much comment from the different ladies. Here’s a sampling:
“Someone needs to come in here and fix that tree.”
“We need an electrician.”
“Look! There it goes again. It’s weird.”
“It’s just plain spooky.”
“I like it.”
“I wish they would haul it away.”
“No, just take the lights off.”
No matter what their opinion, they couldn’t stop looking at the tree. Though annoying, the lights’ staccato rhythms stimulated their minds and arrested their attention. I wondered if there wasn’t a catalogue somewhere from which nursing homes order products with such purposes.
In the midst of the blink-a-blink, a well-dressed North Carolina native who is a new resident walked into the living room and asked the attending nursing assistant for a listening ear. The assistant replied that she had lots of time to listen.
“I just want to know where all the people of my life have gone. One day I had many friends that I had known for years, and now I am here and I don’t know a soul. I had a house and a church and they are all gone now. How did I get here? Can you help me find my friends?” She spoke slowly, well, and with great dignity. It was heartbreaking.
Wisely, the pretty, young assistant answered, “It might help me to find your friends if you would you tell me about your life earlier.” That led to a recounting of the woman’s youth, civic activities, and her responsible position with a statewide organization. She seemed to feel better. All the while, the tree blinked and the other ladies continued their disjointed commentary.
Suddenly, the assistant had another good idea that helped all the ladies: She rebooted the unit’s CD player. Soon, symphonic strains of “Away in a Manger,” filled the room and they all began to sing. There was no hesitation or grappling for words. Most, including Mother, finished the first two verses. The sound of her singing warmed me, and “Away in a Manger” took on new layers of meaning.
I looked around the circle of faces and saw no great joy or sorrow, just peace. Many of them looked straight ahead, as if gazing deep into space. For that short melodic time, blinking tree lights were immaterial. The ladies were unified in spirit and blessed recollection.
Their eyes were dry. Mine were not.
Away in a Manger
by James R. Murray (1841-1905), subtitled Luther’s Cradle Hymn. Third verse by John T. McFarland, 1904.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle ’til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.