Changing Times

Kate and I were in Nashville this past weekend to visit our friend, Ellen, who now lives in memory care. We stayed in a hotel overnight to have a leisurely morning and lunch before visiting her. For most of the day, Kate was not herself. She slept later than I expected or wanted. When I got her up, we had less than an hour before checking out and our reservations for lunch. I tried not to rush her, but she felt rushed nonetheless. Her response was different than usual. I am always concerned about her having a panic attack, something that hasn’t happened in several years. Instead, she seemed frightened and pulled herself away from me a couple of times as I helped her with her clothes. I asked if I had scared her, and she said no.

When we got to the restaurant, she was friendly with the people she met. That is not unusual, but the way she spoke to people outside and inside the restaurant sounded like someone who might have had a little too much to drink.

She got along well once we were seated at our table, but her eyesight caused a few problems. She didn’t recognize it was bread in the bread basket. I picked out a couple of pieces and put them on her bread plate along with some butter which was already soft. In a few minutes, she picked up the butter with her hand and put it in her mouth. Apparently, she thought it was a piece of bread. She didn’t care for it and put it down, but she had a glob of butter on her fingers. I tried to help her wipe her hands on her napkin. I first explained what I was I was going to do, but she was confused and didn’t understand. That shook her up for a minute or two.

We both went to the restroom before leaving. When she came out, she had a paper towel in her hand and dropped it on the floor of the hallway. She apparently didn’t see where to deposit it in the bathroom. As we left, she told everyone goodbye in much the same manner as she had done when we entered.

The big surprise of the day came after we had arrived at Ellen’s memory care facility. We sat down with her in the activities room which was vacant at the time. This time we found that we could understand even less of what Ellen said than the last time. Very quickly Kate played a role that was very different than on our other visits. She took the role of caregiver. Ellen was the one she was caring for. She spoke to her as though Ellen were a child, and she was her caregiver. The tone of her voice was very much like that of an adult talking to a small child. She held Ellen’s hand and discovered that it was cold. She proceeded to explain how Ellen could rub her hands together to warm them up. It was much more of a leadership role than she would normally take. Although Ellen has great difficulty speaking, she seems to understand us quite well. She looked a little puzzled and almost laughed a few times as Kate took charge.

We tried to converse for over thirty minutes before I decided to pull out my iPad and play a few YouTube videos of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals from past BBC PROMS concerts. Initially, both Kate and Ellen were interested. Then Kate saw a few small pieces of debris from a plant in the center of the table. This started a re-run of an experience she had the night of our anniversary dinner in Knoxville when she mistook the tiny bread crumbs as insects and took pleasure in trying to catch them moving. She did exactly the same thing at Ellen’s. The difference was that she became much more absorbed than she had on our anniversary. She completely tuned out of the YouTube videos to watch “the insects.” She was fixated on them for the next 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, Ellen went to sleep. That left me as the only one watching the videos.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was close to the time for a guest to lead the residents at their Sunday afternoon music time. I suggested we join the crowd. What happened then was my biggest surprise of the day. As we walked in, the woman in charge of the program was playing the piano while the residents and a few staff sang. Kate very quickly joined in. She not only sang; she also danced. The leader played a series of very upbeat and familiar tunes to a group our age. Most of them, however, were further along in their dementia than Kate who became the most active participant. Periodically during the songs and at the end of a song, she said in a very loud voice “Woooooe.” It was loud enough that no one could miss it. A mother and her two teenage daughters were standing near us and got a kick out of Kate’s participation. I am sure the leader was pleased. She probably would have liked everyone to respond in a similar way.

So how did I feel about this? I was pleased. It was good to see her enjoy herself so much. As I have mentioned before, she and I often sing in the car. Sometimes I can push her into dancing a little at home, but she was completely unleashed at Ellen’s. Her filter was off. She responded the way she felt. I liked that, and in this situation it was perfectly acceptable. I would have felt very differently if this happened at one of our music nights at Casa Bella. In Ellen’s memory care facility it was one of our joyful moments.

At the same time, I was sad because this was the first time in a public situation that Kate behaved so much like a person with dementia. Until recently, she has gotten along well. In casual contacts, most people would never suspect that she has Alzheimer’s. That is changing now. She seemed a little like the residents around her. Kate is not at their stage yet, but all the signs suggest she is not far away.

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