When dementia can help…sort of
My next-door neighbor, Ethel, lives with her elderly sister. Come to think of it, Ethel’s not so young herself. “Mandy,” she said over the phone. “Could you come over to stay with Cheryl for an hour…two at the most? I need to get an oil change and run some errands. She’ll be glad to see you.”
Ha! I thought, Cheryl doesn’t know who I am half the time and forgets what I said two minutes after I said it. “Well, sure. I’ll come right over.” After all, Cheryl had been my mom’s best friend and was like an aunt to me.
I walked across my backyard and up the steps to the porch where Ethel stood, purse in hand, ready to head for the garage. “There’s some fresh baked cookies on the table for an afternoon snack.”
“Cheryl!” I called into the front room where I could see a neatly brushed head of thin gray hair, cocked to one side, facing a bay window. “It’s Mandy. Here to visit. Come to the kitchen for milk and cookies.” When she didn’t respond, I stood in front of her and repeated. “Cheryl. It’s Mandy. I’ve come to see you. Let’s go get some cookies.” I caught a glimpse of recognition followed by a smile. Selective recall. You never know what you’re going get from her, when.
She suddenly came out with, “Remember when I used to take you to the park when you were a child. And there was that time you toppled off the top of the slide. I was so frightened you would be paralyzed or worse.”
“I guess I was too small to remember. But sometimes when I forget names or words, I wonder if I was brain damaged at the time.” I paused for her response. Here’s where, in the past, she would make some kind of crack about my ‘slipping gears’ as long as she had known me. I was just trying to set her up for her favorite jab. Instead I got a perplexed look and a hurried shuffle toward the kitchen. It was sad to see her losing focus. She had always been so sharp. Now she was kind of vague and in-and-out at any given moment. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
She answered by sitting at the table and grabbing for a cookie. “What did you have for lunch?” I asked. I got a puzzled look in response. All right I thought. I’ll tap her long-term memory instead. “Remember when you used to make me lunch?”
“Your favorite was peanut butter, honey and banana. And you used to get so sticky you practically needed a bath and change of clothes before going back to school.”
She munched contentedly, smiling at the memories scrolling behind her eyes. We had talked about this very subject last week but she didn’t seem to recall. Talking to her was a strange phenomenon and strangely satisfying. I mean, if she didn’t remember what you said, it was like talking to yourself—only better. Because you were telling another human being. Getting it out there to a receptor. People would think you were weird if they heard you spouting off to yourself. But if you were talking to another person, that was okay. That was sharing. Plus, you didn’t have to worry about her telling what you said to anyone else. Kind of like going to confession or talking to a psychiatrist. Only it didn’t cost anything—just time.
Cheryl listened well enough. Nodded. ‘Uh-huhed’ on cue. So, it felt like I was dishing with my besties but didn’t have to worry about them over-sharing. Here’s the deal. Sometimes I feel so angry and pent up, especially when I go online and people start raving their liberal ideas in favor of abortions and climate change and anti-fossil fuel production and ozone destruction. I just get so upset that I jam back with comments and call them names and say nasty things about them and their ideas.
And actually, just before Ethel called I was online getting ready to dump on some snowflake with everything I’ve got. It was all sitting on top of my craw and wanting to come out. As I looked at Cheryl, munching away, I decided to tell her what I was about to post and what I thought about those folks. So, I did. And Cheryl just sat and ate and nodded while I played at Rush Limbaugh on steroids with no on-air censoring.
When my neighbor had finally inhaled the half dozen cookies along with my hissy vents, we both paused for breath. She acted like she hadn’t registered a word I had said. Which is fine by me. And I felt very much more relieved and satisfied than when I type those caustic screeds online. This was a human listening and I could pretend she agreed with me. And even if, at some point, her selective recall allowed my words to surface in the presence of others, I could always claim ignorance and tap my temple.
A while later, we heard Ethel driving up. I grabbed my iPad and headed for the back door. “Nice seeing you Cheryl,” I called over my shoulder. I was pushing the screen door when she called, “You sure carry a lot of anger, Sarah.”