I was in New Jersey visiting one of the communities that I supported as a Divisional Director of Memory Care. This particular space had a calm, soothing and welcoming vibe filled with residents from very diverse backgrounds.
There were several veterans, former school teachers and a former New Jersey Highway Patrolman. The Patrolman had survived an entire career keeping the roads of New Jersey safe. Yet, here he was, still regal and stoic and now living with Alzheimer’s disease. The cruelty of the disease, often takes my breath away - and I’ve been doing this work for over ten years. Unfortunately, it never gets easier.
However, I decided early in my career to focus on all the amazing things I can still learn from the folks with the disease. And, trust me….the lessons are endless.
On this Jersey visit while I stood in the main living room chatting with Rachel the Director, we were approached by a gentleman. His smile was quick and his handshake was strong. Rachel introduced me to JOE and quickly mentioned that the flame red Jaguar in the parking lot belonged to him.
I had but a mere second to come up with a snappy comeback.
You see, in the ‘World of Alzheimer’s’, it’s a thin line between the real truth and the ‘fuzzy-jumbled-vague memories. So, as a trained professional- I’ve become a PRO at just - ‘being in the moment’ with anyone I meet within the secured walls of a Dementia unit. Some days a wrinkled- faced -senior will ask for their mother or confuse me with being a relative.
And, that’s okay. I simply ’roll-with-it’. I do my best to ‘be-in-the-moment’ with them. The theory is, to minimize the anxiety and fear that goes along with losing your memory, it’s best to let the person with the impairment be whothey THINK they are and let them be where they THINK they are.
So, here I stood shaking hands with JOE and being told that his red Jaguar was in the parking lot. I smiled and said, “Gosh, don’t we ALL wish we had a red Jaguar.” Rachel piped up quickly, “No seriously, Joe has a red Jaguar, he goes out every morning for the paper and coffee.”
Wow, either this was the most LIBERAL secured Dementia Unit on the East Coast or….there was another explanation.
Rachel explained. JOE’S wife HELEN had Alzheimer’s and instead of leaving her alone in this Dementia unit , JOE had decided to move in withHELEN. ”We’ve been married over 55 years,” JOE remarked. “I’m not about to let her go now.”
The lump in my throat was overpowering.
It was then, that I met HELEN. A pint-sized, lovely lady with an impish grin and amazingly bright blue eyes. Her well maintained hair was thick and white. She was a bundle of energy and a bundle of words. She was drawn to me immediately. And I realized in a split second why it would be hard to be apart from her.
First, she complimented me on my blouse. “I just love what you are wearing,” she cooed. “It’s a lovely color on you.” I loved HELEN instantly!
She and JOE stood close to each other and spoke over one another as they both brought me ‘up-to-date’ on their marriage and life journey. I learned that they’d never had children, that JOE worked for the Post Master General and that their wedding ceremony was at a Roman Catholic Church near the Jersey Shore.
It was time for lunch. JOE took HELEN by the hand and guided her to their appointed table. He helped her order her meal and kept the table laughing with various quips and witty comments. I was in awe of his commitment to stand by his wife through this un-holy part of their life journey.
After lunch, for some reason, still unknown to me - HELEN was drawn right back to me. She complimented me on my blouse again. And stood close as she shared with me, in great detail, a story about the children that her nephew and his wife had adopted. She was animated as she explained about the children and the various countries that they were from. I was mesmerized by her.
JOE stood nearby, with a loving smile on his face, he nodded his head and was equally as absorbed in the story HELEN was telling. She continued givings exquisite details about the various countries and the adopted children. “That’s amazing,” I said. “What countries are they from?” HELEN came up for air for a brief second as she pondered the answer.
I turned to JOE - He shook his head and muttered gently, for only MY ears to hear…”I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
I turned back to HELEN, who was unfazed and non-pulsed. She was back into story-telling mode….and didn’t skip a beat. Again, I had to swallow hard as I tried to compose myself. JOE was so loving and so supportive - he was the MODEL spouse. Selfishly, I wanted to take him on the road with me - so that HE could help me train all the paid professionals who didn’t always seem to ‘GET IT’ the way JOE clearly did. He was living his life in all of HELEN’S ’moments’.
My bond with JOE and HELEN only deepened as they invited me into the room that they shared. I glanced around the tidy space. One twin bed on the left side while the other twin bed was up against the window. There were cherished possessions and pictures properly placed about, playing witness to a life that was fully lived.
JOE and I sat on the bed, under the window while HELEN stood close by. She continued to speak quickly sharing super-clear details about their wedding day. JOE handed me the amazingly well-kept wedding album. We flipped through the pages and I gazed at the black and white photos of the happy, smiling and much younger version of the two seniors that were with me now.
They looked like movie stars! And, I told them so. “Oh, you can’t imagine how good our photographer was,” HELEN said. “JOE, what was his name again?”
I held their photo album in my hand and turned the pages gingerly as both JOE and HELEN shared stories and details about every picture. I was completely captivated.
20 minutes later, I stood to leave. HELEN thanked me for stopping by, “I know you have such a busy schedule,” she commented. I looked at her…clearly she didn’t know my schedule, she didn’t even know what I did for a living - but, she continued to amaze me with her steady stream of clear, concise language that was surprisingly coherent sounding for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
I thanked them for the visit from the bottom of my heart. JOE turned his back for a moment and opened up a dresser drawer. “Here,” he said, “please take this - you’ve been so kind to us, I want you to have it,”
Yes, please, you must take it” HELEN chirped.
JOE handed over a blue fleece scarf, neatly folded, that still had the sales tag attached. “JOE, really….you don’t have to give me anything,” I said.
“Please, I insist. I know you are busy and you’ve been so kind”
“Would you like something to drink?” HELEN offered.
I reached for the scarf and clutched it to my chest. At that moment in time - it was the GREATEST GIFT anyone had ever bestowed upon me. I was near my breaking point. I’d swallowed lumps and tears all day - in an attempt to be the consummate professional. But, my eyes glazed over as I stood in their one room space filled with 55 years of treasures.
I hugged them both and promised to visit again, someday soon.
I handed the lovely blue fleece scarf to Rachel as I prepared to leave. She tucked it into her desk drawer with the promise she’d put it back, where it belonged in JOE’S drawer.
As I boarded the plane to fly back to my home I silently reflected on the power of JOE’S devotion to HELEN.
JOE’S ability to live-in-the-moment with HELEN and make her remaining days on earth as lovely as possible was inspiring. I hugged my husband extra tight that evening.