My favorite nursing home resident, Angie, died last week. Most every Wednesday evening for more than a year I've spent in an old pink vinyl and wood chair squeezed between Angie and Mary, alternately feeding both a spoonful of pureed food. Angie had the physical ability to lift the fork to her mouth and feed herself, but something in her brain wouldn't trigger her hands to actually do it. She'd sit in front of her dinner all night and never touch it, but if you fed her, she'd thank you for every single spoonful before it passed her lips. Occasionally she'd take a drink of something without being told, but not often. When I'd try to encourage her to drink some milk herself, she'd point at each beverage on the tray – the juice, the tea, the milk – unsure which was milk. When I'd show her, she'd thank me and take a small sip. Angie had conversations with everyone at the table, though nobody seemed to know it. She'd laugh and nod at whatever Mary was saying, which was always gibberish, as if they were sharing a good story. Angie was always in a good mood, always smiling and pointing at the few remaining teeth she had on the bottom front of her mouth. She was expressive and delightful to be around. At the Christmas party last year, the room was pretty warm with all of the additional people helping celebrate, so Angie did what she thought she needed to do to alleviate the problem, she started stripping her turtleneck sweater right off over her head. I quickly caught her and encouraged her to put it back on and suggested we open a window instead. Of course, she happily agreed.
I received an email a few days ago from the volunteer coordinator at the nursing home that Angie had died. It included information on a celebration of her life at the home and her memorial service. I attended the memorial service yesterday at a funeral home in south Minneapolis because I really wanted to know what sort of life Angie enjoyed. It didn't seem possible that a woman so happy in dementia had been anything less in better times. There was an enormous yellowed photo of Angie as a very young woman framed at the front of the room, next to a Japanese-style urn with her ashes inside. Not surprisingly, because she was a lovely old person, she was gorgeous when she was young. There were poster boards covered in photos of Angie through the years. In her younger years pictures of her with her sister, wearing kimonos. Later, in America, there was Angie wearing dated polyester jump suits and sporting bad perms, but always looking radiant. Angie's son spoke for quite a long time, sharing stories about Angie that were wonderful to hear. He told us how Angie had been born and raised in Tokyo and how she had seven brothers and sisters, three whom had died of disease as children. She had a brother who had been trained at fifteen years old to be a kamikaze pilot but had never been called to action. She survived several bombings in Tokyo during WWII but watched several friends die. She came to America, with very little knowledge of any form of English, with an American serviceman, and endured much post-WWII Japanese hatred from Americans with anti-Japanese sentiments burned on their brains. But she never let it bother her, she understood it and dealt with it. She hated war and never wanted her sons to join the military. She loved nothing more than her family and her cats. She traveled to Mexico, Dominican Republic, Japan, and other places and loved it. Angie's son told funny stories of Angie finally learning to drive when her husband took ill with cancer, how it took seven driving tests for her to finally pass and how he thinks the driving instructor just passed her to be done with her. She took classes to learn to read and write English, but still swore and talked in her sleep in Japanese.
Then Angie's son told of her being diagnosed with dementia in 1999, which began what he called "the ten year goodbye." Angie's daughter, who worked at home, and her husband were able to take Angie in for seven years, watching her and keeping her from hurting herself. But her tendencies to wander got to be too much and they couldn't put enough locks on the doors to keep Angie from leaving and being missing for hours at a time. It was too much so they put her in the Memory Care Unit at the nursing home. It was great to hear that they thought the nursing home did a great job with her, I have no way of knowing. Angie's son said she did well in the nursing home, even attracting a suitor (Don) who spent hours with her and made her happy. But then her health started failing and soon last week Angie was in a coma and passed away the next day.
The last time I saw Angie a couple of weeks ago she complained of being in pain. She rubbed her legs and pulled her pajamas up high, revealing her skinny legs and knobby knees. I didn't know it was probably part of the beginning of the end. I don't know how the doctors and nurses who care for dementia patients figure anything out, it seems almost impossible to know what's really bothering them. I am very sad for Angie's family, and I'm definitely going to miss her every Wednesday evening, but it's weird. I sort of feel like the folks I'm with are transitional people, as if they're people at a weigh station, awaiting their next assignment. They have no history and no future. Don't get me wrong, they're fully developed people with brains and hearts and minds, but they're not the folks their families once knew and they don't have dreams of their futures ahead of them. So their passing, while sad, is inevitable and not altogether the unhappiest thing that could happen to them. They're not in a place they ever could have wanted to be. I wish they were still vital parents and sons and daughters and friends, but they're not. Their families have those memories now, and these vulnerable people, void of past and future, just need to be cared for and loved on their way to their next journey, wherever that may take them.