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A funny from dementia’s front lines

Over the past several months, I’ve shared stories about our family’s journey with my husband’s dementia. Many have been sad, because dementia, like any terminal illness, is sad. Robert’s life is cut short, our adult children will miss the wisdom of their father’s years, our grandchildren won’t get to know their grandfather as he was, and our retirement plans have been washed away. We carry these bitter truths.

Funny can be hard too

But occasionally, funny things happen that elevate my experience to comic levels and bring a smile to my heart. This week, I set out to share such a story, but found, to my surprise, that it is harder to write about a funny thing. Why? Because more than anything, the little joys of our life together remind me of what is missing. The loss is raw to me and blunts my delight. So this story lacks some of the wished-for eloquence of my other narratives, but I hope you can chuckle as I did when the tale first unfolded.

. . . . .

In the early days of Robert’s transition to Daylight Senior Living and Memory Care, I visited him every other day. Once a week I even got him out for a walk to the local Starbucks. The store was ½ mile from his new home, too far for him to walk both ways, but I had worked out a system so he only had to walk one way. 

Starbucks for the win!

I’d drive my car to Starbucks, park, and walk the ½ mile back to his place. From there, we’d complete the meandering stroll through the neighborhood back to Starbucks together. There was one stretch of our walk on a busy road that was a bit loud with traffic, but the road was lined with sycamores in fine canopy, so the walk was reasonably pleasant. 

At Starbucks I’d order Robert a coffee (decaf) and a cookie, we’d chat for a while, and then I’d drive him back to Daylight. 

As I’ve mentioned in several other stories, Robert has a very hard time getting into and out of cars. I can’t say that these were always stress-free outings, but they were good for him and mostly good for me, too. He got out into the sunshine that he loved so much, and I felt good about taking him on a walk. Our conversations were filled with inane non-sequiturs and made no sense; such is the nature of the “demented mind.” Anyone eavesdropping would have done a puzzled double-take. But Robert reveled in the connection! It made him happy to spend time together, and it made me feel good to see him smile.

Too hot to handle

On this day in late July, two months after his move, I had parked at Starbucks and dutifully hoofed it back to Daylight. The day had dawned clear and warm, I was overheated when I arrived. My face was dripping under the weight of my too-close sunglasses.

In mid-2021, congregate care settings still followed late-pandemic, county public health orders; I couldn’t get into the facility without first registering a normal temperature at the front desk. I greeted Victoria, Daylight’s receptionist. She was a stickler for the rules and no matter how many times we cycled through the same set of circumstances, she would have no truck with common sense.

I failed my first skin temperature reading with a temperature of 93 degrees. The low temp always surprised Victoria even though this is what happens when we sweat. The air around us cools our bodies and skin temperature sensors held a few centimeters off our foreheads will read a low temp. Always.

I sat down to cool off. My temperature would not return to normal for a while.

The lobby was a busy place. While Victoria recorded temperatures, dealt with a UPS delivery, sorted the mail, and tracked down a handcart, we chit-chatted about our gardens and Victoria confessed she’d turned on her drip system in late February. The winter had been dry. 

Slowing down to chat

If you’ve read any of my previous stories, you know that I don’t easily “do chit-chat.” This was excruciating, especially since we’d been through this routine many times. I always “came in hot” and always had to take time to cool off.

With my skin returned to a warmer misty damp, I was ready to be buzzed into the garden wing of memory care. Ashley, the animated, Director of Resident Activities greeted me with a smile as always and a loud, booming hello. I’d hoped to find Robert eating breakfast in the dining room, but Ashley directed me to his room. He’d been assisted with his shower and was just now getting himself ready for the day. 

Making my way down the residents’ corridor to his room, I greeted Inez who needed help with finding her perpetually lost purse. She was distressed and rotated her wheelchair to greet whoever might be in the hallway. As I did during every visit, I assured her I’d find someone to assist her. (And I did.)

Elian, the once brilliant architect, stopped me to ask how I was doing, his wide-spaced, wandering blue eyes suggesting that even an infirm octogenarian can hope for the occasional dalliance with a new love interest. I should be flattered. 

This obstacle course was my routine now. I knocked on Robert’s door, room 109, and then let myself in.

Bad news

Robert was standing in front of the bathroom mirror. The door was open and the clean smell of shampoo wafted from the room as plumes of steam leaped out to greet me. Robert was combing his hair, fully naked, his legs in a jaunty pose with one leg bent forward, his round, bowling ball, belly leaning into the vanity. 

I threw my backpack on his bed and leaned into the bathroom.

“How are you doing today, honey?”, I asked.

“Not good.”

“Oh, no! What’s wrong?”

“Well, I just got some very bad news.”

“Oh my! What is that?”

“I just found out that I’m 175 years old…and I didn’t want to live that long!”

Let’s do some math

A smile played on my lips. I understood what had happened. Robert was a math guy. He was always counting, adding, or subtracting. He couldn’t remember his age, so he set out to calculate it by subtracting the year of his birth, 1946, from this year, 2021. In completing the subtractions, he’d forgotten that he’d borrowed ten from the hundreds column to subtract 4 from 11 in the tens column. Ergo the final result revealed that he was 175 years old!

“Well, honey,” I exclaimed. “I have some great news!”

“Oh, I could use some good news. What is it?”

“You are only 75 years old!”

“That is good news. Thank you for telling me that.”

Thank you for telling me that. This would be Robert’s refrain for the next few years as he remembered less and less. He was forever kind and appreciative of the little reminders. Like the fact that he was not 175 years old after all and that he wasn’t going to have to “do this life” for so many more years. 

4 thoughts on “A funny from dementia’s front lines”

  1. Woo hah! Great to be able to solve something, ain’t it?
    My new year’s resolution is to find the humor. It’s often there even if I can’t find it at the moment, I’M SURE (it’s gotta be somewhere around here, it better be). And I’m pretty sure the audience for some good age-related comics is mushrooming.
    Congrats on finding it that day and having some attention out for all the folks you found along the way. I am sorry you lost the source you had for decades, and I am glad you had it for those decades.
    My new mantra for thinking about my husband is “cognitive decline”…not dementia. His doc is not pushing a dementia diagnosis, and I’m trying to get out of crisis thinking…no fires here right now! But I am feeling gobsmacked by what global effects may have been brought on by all the other crap he’s had to deal with getting out of control for a while.
    Dementia is a terrifying thing for him to contemplate (not to speak of anyone else, like me or our daughter) and bringing it up deepens the gulf between us. But I still want him to get thoroughly assessed. I don’t feel like I adequately express to doctors how disengaged he has become. And I don’t feel like spending a lot of my time hanging out doing the little he does, with him. So, gotta find the humor that juices it up and hang with the right people together. Goddess bless good friends.
    May you keep track of your grin, dear.

  2. I love reading your updates. This latest is intensely personal and yet resonates in many ways for so many situations. Sending love to you and your sweet pup.

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