For a week now, my mother has been living on the floor in her Senior Living Facility called the MEMORY UNIT. It’s called that not because people sit around and share their memories of weddings and anniversaries, births of children and grandchildren, high school romances, travel to India or Scotland or Peoria, Illinois, jobs they loved or hated—but because they have little memory left.
In a large room off the nurse’s station complete with comfortable chairs and a tall fish tank, most of the day in a Memory Unit is spent sitting in a wheel chair and being watched or kept busy by a competent staff. There are old movies, bingo games, singing fests, exercise and meals. Keep things moving is the mantra. No memory will form or be held. You are suspended in experience that falls through your fingers like water. Only visits from old friends and your children can fire up your synapses to grasp something solid and pleasing—that’s my daughter, Beth.
My mother is 94. She has a progressive disease called dementia. Hers is multi-infarct which means over the years miniscule implosions in the circuitry of her brain have robbed her of the ability to hold information. Her dementia has destroyed her short term memory. You tell her you’ll be there on Saturday and one minute later she will ask you what day you are coming. That’s a situation that can be handled. You repeat and repeat or write it down. But other aspects of this disease are more debilitating.
After she cracked her pelvic bone and couldn’t walk without assistance, telling her not to get out of bed on her own just didn’t hold. She got up anyway—and fell. And fell again. Falls are the greatest danger to a 94 year-old woman. She is still marked with bruises on her face. So my brothers and I had to allow the facility to move her to Memory Unit where she is more confined and can be watched. A short six months ago, she was living in a one bedroom apartment in the same complex, going to her meals with her walker and reading the paper before a morning nap on her sun-filled couch. Now she is living this other life.
We all know it’s evil and cruel—dementia, Alzheimer’s. We’ve seen movies about it—Julie Christie in Away from Her. Friends embrace me and tell me it’s okay, as long as she still remember who I am. That just brings me no comfort. Isn’t my mother suffering? How is it for her who is living this? She had to ask me how my father died. The greatest day of upheaval in her life—June 4th, 1950, when my father died of a heart attack in our living room at the age of 45, leaving her with a 6, 3 and 3 month old to care for. And her memory drips, drips away and cannot hold on to that? She has even asked me how many children she has. I point to the pictures on the wall of her shared Memory Unit room. Three, I tell her. See. Here we are.
We crowd the walls with pictures. We send more and more of great-grandchildren and grandchildren. They are pasted to her closet door and overflowing two ribbon boards.