Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Runaway Resident of the Memory Care Facility

Nearly every time I walk into the Alzheimer's facility in Greensboro, I see her sitting in the community area. Her reddish hair is hard to miss. But what truly sets Hazel apart is her warm smile and her playfully pointing finger.

That's her way of saying hello, pointing at me repeatedly. The pointing eventually becomes a beckoning, her hands clutching the air, aimed toward me. Even though I'm on my way to my mother's room, I can't resist Hazel. I go to her, lean down, and hug her. I know nothing about this woman, nor does she know me, but her embrace is as tight as mine.

Her eyes are wide, joyful. I wonder if she's always been such a happy person? I'm no expert on the subject, but I've come to believe dementia can make the elderly both more of who they were and less of who they are.

I ask Hazel if she's been behaving herself. "Oh no," she says, shaking her head. This is something else I've learned about Alzheimer's sufferers: They often love being asked this question. Maybe it makes them feel like they're still capable of mischief, which means they're still a force to be reckoned with.

And they can be. Just a few days before I arrived, I received an email blast sent to those with family at the facility. The message said that "a resident has again found out the door code" needed to exit the building.

"We believe the resident had figured out to look in the back of the visitor's log and was able to peek at it while assisting some other residents out of the front door for an outing." From now on, the memo continued, the exit code will no longer be written in the back of the visitor's logbook. The message gave the new code, with the implication that you'll have to keep it handy or remember it. I must admit, I love the irony of needing to remember a code to exit a memory care facility.

Back to Hazel. As we talk, her hands grab mine and hold on, firmly. I think she's even flirting with me, so I flirt back. We are adoring each other, laughing and talking. And then, her tone grows quieter, her smile fades, a desperation comes into in her eyes.

"Can you take me home?" she asks. "Please?"

Entrance to the memory-care facility
I've been asked this before where my mother lives--sometimes, my mother is the one asking. It always destabilizes me, like a mild earthquake. For a second, I don't have a response. My mind flashes back to the runaway resident I read about in the email. Was it Hazel? It could have been. It could have been just about any of the residents, except perhaps for those I always see slumped in chairs or staring blankly ahead.

The truth is, Hazel is home. I won't tell her that, however. I know that at this stage of her life, the truth is as meaningless as a lie. But the truth continues to sting; the lie offers fleeting hope.

I hug Hazel once more and tell her I'll be happy to take her home, but I must first visit my mother. Her smile returns, though not as brightly as before. Perhaps she knows, intuitively, that although where she is may not be home, it's where she must be.

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  1. This one really moves me; so much so that I can't think of anything witty to say. My heart aches for Hazel, your mother, my grandmother, you, me and all who have been or loved someone who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer's.
    God, that was the longest sentence ever.
    If you ever need an east coaster to go hug Hazel, or your mom, I will do it.

    1. You're such a sweet soul, Judi. One of these days I'm going to meet you and give you a big hug!

  2. I just bawled like a baby. As it happens, I grew up next to a nursing home, and my great-granddaddy lived there until he died, when I was 7. I visited a lot during the summer, and hardly a week went by when he didn't ask me when we were gonna bring him home. This was always so upsetting for me because my house was just across the yard from the facility, and my grandma (his daughter) lived right across the street. He occasionally would roll out the back door in his wheelchair and wind up at one of our houses. Those were the best days because he would make fun of how dumb the nurses were to fall for whatever diversion he'd managed to set up!

    1. Wow! I can only imagine, living right across the yard. So near, but so far. Thanks for sharing that story! I loved it.

  3. You are a good man James Martin!
    I always feel a little better after I stop by here.
    I bet Hazel does too.
    Thank you ...AGAIN

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  5. James you are a very Soulful writer.Tears on my eyes:):)

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  7. Hi, this is my first time on your blog. I am helping care for a friend who has dementia and one of her worries is that she will be thrown out of her home. Her guardian is trying to keep her amongst her own things as long as possible. Though eventually my friend may need to go to a facility, we will try to keep her in her apartment. I have known my friend over 30 years, and it is difficult for me to see her in the bad moments of her disease. My heart goes out to anyone suffering from this disease, but more so for the loved ones who have to watch the cognition slowly fade away.

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog, and for sharing your story. It is a painful experience to watch someone you love slowly fade away, as you say, especially when that person is your mother or father. I'm fortunate that despite battling dementia for about eight years now, my mother still recognizes me almost every time and she knows I'm her son. That's a huge comfort. It would be even more difficult to care for someone you love when he or she doesn't even know who you are. Thanks again for writing. All my best to you and your friend. -- Jim