Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Viera’s Vignette

I first noticed her straw hat lying on a chair next to the table in the corner of the coffee shop.  Not knowing whom it belonged to, nor really caring, I walked past it and sat down with my friend to drink my coffee and chat.  While we were intently discussing the future of the baby boomers, my attention was diverted.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see an older women leaning on a cane and struggling to balance a large cup of coffee.  She was maneuvering her way through the line of people waiting and heading to the table where the hat sat waiting.

I turned my head to see that the woman was quite thin, but not frail.  She didn’t seem confident, but she didn’t appear timid.  She was nicely dressed in a mid length camel brown skirt and a collared matching blouse with sleeves rolled to the elbows.  A multi colored striped cotton belt was tied in a knot, just below her waist.  She had brown hair, streaked heavily with bands of dull gray that she had twisted loosely into a bun at the back of her neck.  The woman was somewhat attractive, not pretty, but she conveyed the presence of a handsome European matriarch.  I guessed her to be in her early eighties.

 As she wound her way through the tables, her mouth was moving as if she were engaged in a conversation, but she was alone, and no one was nearby to hear what she said.  One may have described her as “strange,” had they not taken into account her age. She plopped in the chair next to the hat, and gave a deep sigh of relief.

 My friend paused mid sentence, when she realized I was no longer listening to her.   “I couldn’t help but notice that older women at the table near the window.  She’s here alone,” I said hoping that explained my lack of commitment to our conversation.  My friend turned her head to see the woman I was studying.  We had been engaged in a conversation concerning our neglected senior population, and we silently shared the irony of my unexpected diversion. 

The two of us studied the woman.  We saw her begin to stir her coffee, then stand, reach for her cup, grab her cane, and walk slowly back to the condiments bar.  She poured some half and half into her cup and made her way painstakingly back to the table.  Again, she looked relieved to be safely seated.

We continued to watch her.  We were not being rude, but we were fascinated by her determination to maintain an air of self-sufficiency.
We saw her pull out a clear bag of cookies that were tucked away in her purse.  Her head turned to the tables next to her, first right, then left to see if anyone noticed.  We felt sure she was unaware of us from across the room.  She quickly opened the zip lock bag and pulled out three very plain wafers.  After patting the plastic bag flat, she placed her cookies one by one beside her cardboard cup.  She then leaned back, smiled to herself, and began to nibble at her cookies and sip her coffee. Meanwhile, she continued to carry on a conversation with whomever she imagined was with her.

My friend and I returned to our conversation and forgot about her for at least a half an hour.  Then as I was walking to the refuse can to throw in our empty cups, I saw that the woman was also getting ready to leave.  She eased herself up by using her cane as support.  Then she reached to retrieve her straw hat.  She leaned her cane on the edge of the table, and with both hands, placed the hat on her head. She pulled it precisely to the center of her forehead and tugged the brim to tilt it slightly to one side.  She grabbed her cane and with careful strategic steps, she left.

My friend and I stood outside for several minutes finishing our conversation about seniors and about being seniors.  We bemoaned the fact that as we get older men don’t turn their heads any more, and others just walk past us as if we didn’t exist.  We have reached a stage in our lives when we feel almost invisible.  With a sigh of  “Oh well, it is what it is,” we hugged and parted.

When I pulled from my parking space, I was surprised to see the same older woman from the coffee shop.  She was walking back and forth; her head rotating from side to side as if she were a spectator at a tennis match.  One hand was pressing the top of her straw hat to keep the wind from whisking it from her head, and the other was struggling to balance her wobbling cane.  She was frowning and talking to herself.  Considering her wild gestures and the frantic look on her face, I guessed that she had lost her car.

I slowly pulled up beside her.  I rolled down my window, and I yelled, “Have you lost your car?”  “Yes,” she cried. I could see that she was on the verge of tears.
 “Get in. I’ll help you find it.”
She hesitated, then after a second or two, she nervously reached for the door handle.  “This is just awful…this is just so awful,” she repeated anxiously.

We drove down all the aisles where she thought she had parked.  She described her car - a dark gray Volkswagen.  She repeatedly rattled off the license numbers hoping the information would help us.  After three circles around the parking lot, we did not find her car.  “Let’s go to the other side,” I suggested.
“No. I’m positive I parked near this door,” she argued as she pointed to the front of the coffee shop.

“I don’t see it here.  You’d still be near the door on the other side, I coaxed, but at a different angle.”

I turned toward the east side of the lot.  We drove up one aisle, and as we drove down another I knew immediately we had hit the Jack Pot. To our right was the 2008 gunmetal gray Volkswagen.

“Is that it?”  
Tears welled in her eyes.  “Yes.   Oh, yes.”
After she thanked me again and again, “ I said, “My name is Karen.”
“My name is Viera,” she said with a heavy Germanic accent.  “Thank you, Karen.  You are very kind.”

She opened the door and got out.  I waited until I was sure she had started the ignition, and then I waved and drove away.   I couldn’t help but wonder how many others had seen her wandering and searching for her car, or to them, like most seniors, had she been invisible?

Sunday, July 8, 2012


 Facing the Dilemma of Dementia

Many of my residents live in their own “special” world.  Their minds have changed in mysterious ways.  It isn’t relevant whether it is Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or a vascular deficiency that is altering their thinking.   The end result is often the same.  Our loved ones remain in their own familiar body while their personalities morph into people we don’t recognize.  Occasionally, this different person is content, at ease and accepting of the new place that their mind has taken them.  But, more often than not, the new place is confusing and frightening.

Virginia is a charming and attractive.  She has a fluffy cloud of white hair that is bright and shiny and thick.  Her eyes are hazel brown, clear and bright; her glaring eye contact never timid. Virginia is kind, lovable, polite and accommodating.  Her biggest challenge is her memory.  She cannot retain a thought for more than several minutes, and she uncontrollably and incessantly repeats the same questions time after time.  If someone politely answers each question, that answer is lost to her in less than a minute or two.

Virginia is obsessed with spending time with her daughters and returning to her home.  Although she admits she is happy and feels secure in the community, she is focused on her former life as a mother and caregiver for her children.   Nervous and uneasy, she searches frantically for phone numbers to contact her family.   Sadly, after speaking with one of them, she will not remember a few minutes later.  Unwittingly, she will compulsively call again, and again and again.

At a time when Virginia should feel relaxed and content, she is forever anxious and apprehensive.  She cannot sit for more than 5 or ten minutes.   Unsettled and nervous, Virginia paces the living room and entryway.   She cannot focus on bingo, exercise, crafts, or even professional musical entertainment.  She is obsessed about being away from her girls every minute of every day.

Virginia was a dedicated grade school teacher.  When she becomes agitated and frustrated we distract her with various word games.  She will sit for a short period recalling her English skills to concentrate on word puzzles and anagrams.  Her attention spam is short, but her beaming smile symbolizes her success when she is able to focus and complete one of the puzzles.  From time to time, Virginia will
 solicit the staff for chores to assist them. We keep a ream of multi-colored paper at hand.  Feeling useful, she adeptly sorts the colors.  She returns the organized stack to us not recalling that she had finished the same task the day before.

Virginia’ solicitation for attention can be somewhat irksome, but she is a welcome sweet addition to our community.  It takes patience and understanding to join her world everyday, and it is emotionally trying to watch her always restless and troubled; we strive to keep her content. 

It troubles me to watch Virginia.  Not because she is confused, nor is it because she needs above average supervision.  Her universe is small and getting smaller.  Virginia cannot find a space in it where she is content.  She was a great mom, a woman with an above average intelligence, and a truly nice person.   I cannot eradicate the dementia, but I wish that I could help her find some special place in her mind where she can peacefully finish the rest of her life.  I regret that I can’t.