Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Memorable Meal at the Dementia Diner

In tragedy, there is always comedy. If you ever doubt this, have dinner with the residents of your local Alzheimer's facility.

Ruth and her grandson Stafford
While I was in Greensboro this week, my nephew Stafford and I visited with my mother, Ruth, during the evening meal at the 'memory care' facility where she lives. There were three others at the table. One was a rather blank-faced woman who, on previous visits, I've seen rocking back and forth in her chair, taking her glasses on and off, on and off. She didn't wear glasses this time but still rocked back and forth, though not as much as before.

Next to her was a man who wore thick glasses, hunched over his meal, barely made eye contact, and didn't say a word.

The third resident at the table was a petite, jovial, bespectacled woman with white curly hair and a love of song. She asked if we knew the song Yankee Doodle Dandy and then promptly began to sing it, punctuating each lyric by thrusting her index finger at me.

"Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni."

What Does a Feather Have to Do With Macaroni, Anyway?

The woman laughed and said something like, "My sister and I used to sing that all the time when we were kids, and I always wondered what a feather had to do with macaroni?"

"That's a good question," I replied, not really knowing what to say. 

Stafford and I were trying to get Ruth to eat her dinner, which was carved-up chunks of grilled chicken and the most dreadful vegetable ever devised, cauliflower. Ruth ate a few bites, reluctantly, as the floor show resumed.

"I used to love My Melancholy Baby," the songbird continued, immediately launching into a rendition.

"Come to me, my melancholy baby
Cuddle up and don't be blue
All your fears are foolish fancies, maybe
You know, honey, I'm in love with you."

She paused to recollect something her father used to say about the "foolish fancies" part and continued:

"Every cloud must have a silver lining
Just wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too."

Just as I was thinking how amazing it was that this chanteuse could recall that much of an old song, my mother looked at me and rolled her eyes extravagantly. The woman, unaware of Ruth's disapproval, happily concluded her song:

"So smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too."

A Hand, Moving Stealthily Into My Peripheral Vision

Stafford and I applauded. About this time, I saw a hand moving ever so stealthily into my peripheral vision. The hand belonged to the woman to my right, the one who tends to rock back and forth. For whatever reason, she gingerly placed a chewed-up piece of chicken on top of the cellophane-wrapped Easter cookie Stafford and I had brought Ruth. When the woman wasn't looking, I slowly moved the cookie away and shook off the masticated meat.

And so went another meal at the "Dementia Diner." Forgive me for having a little fun here; humor is what helps me endure this situation. I'll leave you with one more example.

 Earlier that day, two of my sisters and I spent a chunk of time with Ruth in her room at the facility, answering the same questions repeatedly. Ruth kept asking, "Was I married?" "Who was my husband?" "Is he still alive?," and so on. At one point, Ruth asked how old she was when she married.

"You were 20 years old, and Dad was 28," I answered.

"Twenty years old?," Ruth exclaimed. Then she looked at us and asked, "Why did y'all let me get married so young?"
My mother, a few years ago, horsing around with my niece Marcy. The wheelchair was for my mother, but she pushed Marcy all the way down the hall in it. Just for laughs.

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  1. God bless you and your Mum, too, Jim. You are a good son....and your Mum still knows how to deliver a great punch line. xo Te

    1. That is the truth, Te. She still has some spunk.

  2. It's nice that you had a chance to visit. I used to visit a dear friend that was in the same type of facility and she used to ask me a lot about her husband and when he was coming to visit even though he was sitting right there in the room. It was difficult to visit her but I could see her eyes light up just because she had company, even if she didn't know who I was. You're a good son!

    1. I know all too well what you mean, Alicia. Thanks! Jim

  3. "Why did y'all let me get married so young?"

    I imagine that it seemed like a good idea at the time and overall I'd say that it worked out very well. ;-)

    Sounds like being a wife, mother and taking care of family are so deeply embedded in your mother that the disease cannot take it away. It also appears that this caring and responsibility has been passed on to her family.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind comments, Will J. I appreciate it. -- Jim

  4. Thanks for the wonderful story. So often our family members are tucked away like memories but you think of your Mom and visit her often. I know how very hard it can be but your love shines through!

  5. I love, love your blogs, and you..!!!!

  6. Oh Jim, this is so good. My friend Bill B. and I had a similar experience when we visited his mother and I visited my aunt at Simpson Meadows, a dementia car unit a few years back. Both my aunt and his mother were in their 90's (my aunt is still alive) and pretty far gone. They lived across the hall from one another at the care unit (I forget the fancy name they had for it). Them living so close to gather was ironic because when they were little girls they used to live on the same street (across from each other) and here they were living across the hall from one another now and they didn't know each other.
    Bill and I watched some of the other occupants of the facility, some rocking back and forth, some staring at us intently. We watched one man try to get up out of his chair for about an hour. We offered to help but the aid said not to, she said "he'll do that all morning. It gives him something to do." Wow. Bill and I looked at each other and said "Hope that's not us in the future." The funny thing was that the man used to own a jewelry store in town and give Bill his first job while Bill was in high school as a sale clerk behind the counter of the jewelry store. We saw the humor in the situation but also the sadness.
    I was thinking about doing a blog entry about our experiences there and now that you have done so, I just might. It was an eye opening experience, that's for sure.

    1. You should definitely do a blog entry about your experiences, Ron. As you say, it's humorous and profoundly sad at the same time. -- Jim

  7. Correction on spelling not "to gather" but "together." I will have to proof read my comments!

  8. Jim, it's so good that you have a sense of humor, but it seems like you get it honestly, from your mother.

    1. Bill, I think it did get my sense of humor from my mother--as well as my sense of drama! -- Jim

  9. Mr. Martin, Tim here, I wish I had met you when I lived in SF....that is a truly sweet story, and by the way, you write well.
    Thanks for sharing