Who did these people used to be? I used to wonder about that when my father first went to an assisted-living center for Alzheimer’s nine years ago.
There was one tiny elderly woman who used to be a concert pianist. Another woman who traveled the world as a buyer for Neiman-Marcus. My father’s roommate, Charlie, who carried his harmonica in his shirt pocket and could easily be coaxed into playing it.
In their individual rooms, you could see proof of who they used to be — the beaming family portraits, the professional certificates, the mementoes of years past. What remained with the patients themselves was always unpredictable. A few, who’d grown up in in communities settled by earlier generations of German immigrants, reverted to speaking German. Some retained social skills, politely listening to you, then responding appropriately, as long as the conversation didn’t go on too long.
Others became different personalities — like the Neiman-Marcus buyer, who could only talk about sex. Her son, I heard, was mortified by the changes in her. My father retained a sense of humor and playfulness. He also clung to good manners. He’d grown up in a poor family and had been schooled in manners by the house mother at his fraternity. Manners had been key to his life, an entree into another social world. They were among the last things he forgot.
Today, I’m visiting my father with my cousin, Cheryl. He stares at her and won’t break the gaze. She looks so much like her mother, my father’s twin sister who died years ago, that she has to be deeply, hauntingly familiar to him. He can’t say much that’s coherent, though. Conversation is something that’s now been left behind.
After nine years, I no longer know the other patients. We moved my father to be closer to us a year and a half ago, and we lost touch with Charlie and some of the other patients we knew. So many of them deteriorated and died very quickly. My father’s illness has been much more gradual. I say I don’t know which option is better, but that isn’t true. Quickness of decline and death seems far more merciful to me.
When dementia is longer lasting and more gradual, the patient and family and caretakers lose the vestiges and memories of who he used to be. Why remember? There’s only the eternal present.
“Your father caught a ball and we played with it for a while the other day,” a visiting nurse told me recently. “I was surprised he could do that.”
“He used to be a gifted athlete,” I said. “He played baseball and softball. He was a pitcher.” Then I wondered why I said that, whether it even mattered any longer. Sometimes, those memories make the present more unbearable.
Cheryl and I talked to him and she took some photos of all of us. When we left, he thanked us for coming. He didn’t know who we were, even though we’d told him repeatedly. But he thanked us because those manners still cling to him, one of the few things that he has left.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)