Alzheimer's diseaseFriendsSongs

March 12, 2016

Doris in Wonderland

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Doris is moving but I don’t think she’s going to notice. Doris is my friend with Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the years I have spent many Friday evenings with Doris.  My first visit set up a pattern: I walk in and introduce myself. She graciously responds. We chat about singing, music, and teaching. We watch MSNBC until the news shows end and the weird Lockdown part of their programming begins. I fix her a peanut butter and banana sandwich and a bowl of ice cream. We begin at the beginning of the Schirmer edition of 24 Italian Songs and Arias of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century and work our way through to the end. She plays the accompaniments and I sing the arias. I do a little water painting and she watches. She doesn’t want to try it herself. We watch the KCTS Arts channel until time for me to leave.  I make sure she gets her evening medications before I go.

“Doris, will you know who I am when I come back?” I asked at the end of that first visit.

“I don’t know who you are now,” she said.

Every time I visit, Doris claims to remember me but I can see in her eyes that she doesn’t. She searches my face. There’s a glimmer of panic that goes away as soon as I smile and tell her how good it is to see her. I like to think that something in her heart recognizes me, but I don’t know if it does. That’s really not what these visits are about. We aren’t building a relationship.

Doris is the mother of Tommie, my (beloved) voice teacher. She lives with her son, Rich who is a hospice nurse. I started visiting when Doris’ husband died and her dementia was progressing. I didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s disease, but I grew up with a mother who was mentally ill and I know how to roll with unexpected behavior and disconnected thinking. I just wanted to help. I didn’t expect to come to love Doris.

Doris is delightful. She’s funny, out-spoken and kind. There was no odd behavior or disconnected thinking in the beginning, except that her memory loss meant I had to answer the same question 15 times in an hour. I don’t mind that except when the question is “Do you have a family?” That feels a little brutal. I mean I do have a family, but it’s of my own making, not one I was born into or that came out of my body. When I explain this to Doris, she understands (and often has a few choice comments about the drudgery of husbands and families) but then I have to keep explaining it.

Conversations now are like being in Wonderland. Sometimes her husband is alive, sometimes he is dead. Sometimes we are in her home, sometimes we aren’t. Sometimes she is living with her youngest son, sometimes with the oldest. Sometimes she isn’t living with anyone.

One December I exclaimed, “Oh Doris, you got a Christmas tree!”

“Oh, no” she said. “That’s not mine.  I don’t live here.”

“This is only where you spent the last 150 nights, right Mom?” Rich asked.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

She thought for a while. “Someplace else.”

We always travel through the various places Doris has lived: Born in Prince Rupert, she grew up in Fremont, Nebraska, and as an adult and mother lived in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and Iowa City. She lived in Seattle once but she’s not sure when that was.

We talk about her career in music: singing, teaching singing, teaching public school music, being a church organist. I tell her about my teaching and performing experiences. She enjoys and sympathizes and comments with astuteness.

We sing a song she used to teach in the classroom: “Singing is fun, singing is fun, let’s all sing together each and ev-er-y-one.” I feel for Rich and Tommie; I am truly sick of that song.

She’s tells me about her parents, brothers and sisters. We go over the names of her children. Looking at a collage of photos one day, I remarked at how pretty Tommie was.

“She’s not pretty,” Doris said. “She’s cute.”

“And your son here—he’s quite handsome.”

“No, he’s not. That’s just a good picture.”

“Doris!” I laugh.

“Well, I do love them,” she said.

She’s never sure what I am doing there. Am I one of the aides? Am I her guest? She should be serving me a banana and peanut butter sandwich.

“I’m your friend, Doris,” I say. “I’m here because I like being with you and I don’t care for peanut butter and banana sandwiches! But I’ll eat the last half of that banana.”

I really do enjoy the time with her. It’s an alternate reality that I find restful and occasionally fascinating.

But the last visit was different. It started out as it always did and we went along for a few hours before it turned a corner. It bothered her that I was in the kitchen. What was I doing in there? It bothered her so much I had to hurry things along and left a mess. Then she objected to my cleaning it up.

She didn’t want me to paint. She was adamant about that. Why was I in her house?

Finally she said, “I am tired and want to go to bed. I am going to excuse you now.”

I looked at her for a long time, trying to decide what to do. Finally I said, “Doris, I understand ‘I’m excused,’ but Rich wants me to stay here until he gets home. If you want to go to bed, I can just read a book until he gets back.”

“I can’t do that. You’re my guest.” She looked at me as though she wasn’t
at all happy that I was her guest and composed herself to be a martyr.

“Where is Rich?”

“He went to the movies. He’ll be back soon.”

Doris became agitated. “No one discussed this with me. They shouldn’t make plans without talking to me.”

“Oh look,” I said picking up a box of photos. “I can’t leave before we look at these.”

It took about ten seconds to distract Doris from whatever suspicions were cycling through her mind, and we spent the rest of the evening in a détente. I felt sad on the drive home. Doris’ condition is always changing but this was the first time I had seen such a departure from what I was used to. To me it signaled the end of our fun evenings together.

“Don’t worry about it,” my friend Susan (and author of Old is Not a Four Letter Word) told me. “It’ll be different next time. She won’t remember.  Nothing will carry over.”

Susan was right. I saw Doris last week. I walked in and introduced myself. I kissed her cheek. She graciously responded. We chatted about singing, music, and teaching, and all the places she has lived. I made her a peanut butter and banana sandwich. She asked me if I had a family.

Doris is soon to be moved into an adult family home.

“All the other people are practically comatose,” Tommie told me. “She’ll be the life of the party.”

Oh Doris, you are already the life of the party.

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