By Paul Johnson
Got a call from an old colleague the other day.
We hadn’t talked on the phone for some time. A couple of years back, he and his wife moved to Arizona, where they had wintered a time or two. They liked it. We’ve been keeping in touch via email. That’s the way it’s done in the early 21st century.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries. Then we got down to business. I knew he had something serious on his mind. Otherwise, why not just get on the gmail?
“Paul,” he said, “I’m wondering how you talk to someone with Alzheimer’s. I saw your note about Bob and I’m sure you saw the email about Pat and I was wondering what you’re doing about that. I’ve got this friend, too, who has Alzheimer’s, and I just don’t know really how to talk to him or what to do.”
“Well, J– ,” I started to say.
“I guess I really want to know, ‘What would Paul do?’” he said, buttering me up.
I thought to myself, I’m not Jesus, but I was flattered that Joe was asking.
Serious questions. We’d faced them before. More than we like. But at our age, we’re gonna be asking these kinds of questions a lot more.
In Pat’s case, I had already acted. Pat was another colleague. Her luck is about to run out. The doctors gave her months to live. And we know how that goes. It’s just a guess. It could stretch to a year. It might be days. All we really know is that her time is running out.
Someone sent a note around on the email chain of former colleagues asking people to contribute to a compilation of memories of Pat. It would be given to her family to for Pat to peruse in her final days. Thoughtful. Compassionate. Something her family could look back at after she’s gone and savor the legacy, know that Pat was respected and loved by those who worked with her. Very nice idea.
I spurned it.
I decided to just write a personal note to Pat. With my own personal, private feelings. I had mailed it before Joe called. I didn’t need to conform to this compilation idea. I’m gonna do it my way. How arrogant.
I told Joe what I had done to satisfy my own selfish notions of how to communicate to someone who’s about pass on to the next dimension. And I said the compilation is a sweet idea. And perhaps to save face I said there is no reason one couldn’t do both. He kindly agreed and said he had already sent his contribution to the compilation. Time was of the essence.
But Joe was really calling about Bob and his friend with Alzheimer’s. He had already done what he could for Pat.
The question now was, really, what we could do about our friends whose reality no longer meshes with the reality we see — the reality we think they should see? How do we talk to them? How do we converse? How do we connect? Can we connect?
In Bob’s case, things seemed to go to hell in a hurry, but as in most things, it was a long time coming.
He and his wife of more than a half-century moved to assisted living, after holding out on their own for way too long, in our opinion, with Bob taking care of Joanie, who was physically frail and mentally tenuous. Truer love there never was. But Bob was exhausted by the time they moved. And apparently worse.
Days after the move, Bob fell. Broke some ribs. Next day. Joanie fell. Broken hip. I’m told it is usually the hip that breaks, causing the fall. Bob’s ribs healed. Joanie hip didn’t.
In a week or so, Joanie’s dead. Bob’s daughter says he had a breakdown, just like that. He’s now in a different reality.
He’s in memory care. He’s happy. He might not know who you are, his daughter says.
I talked to Bob the day before Joe called. He sounds chipper. His voice is good. He says he remembers me. To be honest, I’m not sure he did. We talk. He says, “I was wondering how you’ve been.” He talks about Joanie. He asks about my wife, but he’s not sure of her name. He remembers things about her, but he was having trouble thinking of her name. I mention some other people we worked with. He recalls some, he asks me to clue him in a little better on others. Steer him to that memory.
Then he tells me some stories. Don’t know how factual they are. They seem a little weird, but possible. He’s got the same chuckle. I can picture the impish grin that goes with it. He struggles to get some of the details out, pausing to try to recall, perhaps hoping I can help him fill in the blanks. I don’t know. Never will. He’s glad I called. We agreed I will visit when the weather is nicer and we can sit outside. Covid is still on my mind, even though the memory care people say everybody’s vaccinated and they take precautions. Bob always liked to be outside. We’ll get together when it’s warm enough to be outdoors for an extended period.
I relate some of this to Joe.
He relates his dilemma with his friend. And it IS a dilemma. There’s no good answer. Joe’s 2,000 miles away from his friend. His friend has no business living alone. His wife is dead. He misses her. Another friend reports he has taken up smoking again. Burn marks around the house. There’s the dementia. Or is it Alzheimer’s? There’s a difference, we understand. We just don’t understand enough.
Joe’s friend is still driving. His friend’s daughter has put a tracking device on his car so she can always find it. She’s aware of it all. Dad doesn’t want to move. Gets ornery at any such suggestion.
Joe’s wondering, how can he get through to his friend? Can he get through to his friend? They share a love of cars. Is that something that can help ground his friend? Maybe open some door where he will agree with his daughter that he should move out of that house, before it becomes a 9-1-1 call?
I got nothing. There are no good answers. There are no universal answers. What seems to be working for Bob ain’t the answer for Joe’s friend, who will literally fight it.
So Joe and I moved on to other topics, agreeing that all we can really do is try to connect with our friends whose reality no longer matches reality as we see it. And hope they can be safe and happy until their days run out. They’re living too, with their own version of reality.
© 2021 Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife Diana. His version of reality is that he is mostly retired after spending much of his adult working life in newsrooms and corporate communications shops.
As dementia is becoming a persistent guest in my social circle, I appreciate your honest essay.