I know the official definition of dementia: A chronic disorder caused by brain disease marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning. I could even attempt to tell you what the biological and physiological causes are. From my experiences in an assisted living center, I’ve come to understand that dementia is a terrible affliction of the mind. But only through my contact with some of the elderly residents have I learned that the mind of someone who is suffering from dementia is a frightening, lonely, and disorienting place, enough to make anyone a little difficult to handle.
We had just gotten back from a trip to a local park with the residents of the dementia care unit. As I was leading some of the residents back into the facility, I saw Bertha struggling to emerge from her room. Her face was pulled tight from the effort of keeping herself standing as she leaned heavily on the walker in front of her.
“I-I need some help,” she whispered in a tired, nasally voice. Not one to simply pass her by, I came closer to Bertha and asked her what was wrong.
“I need to talk to you about what-what’s bothering of me,” she continued quietly, too preoccupied by the effort of standing to directly look at me. Seeing that I had nodded my assent, she waved me weakly into her room, its door slightly ajar.
At the sight of her plush, blue sofa, I urged her to sit down, seeing that all of the events of the day had really taken it out of her. Though she was a little slow, I was immensely relieved when she finally sat. She breathed a little sigh of relief as she murmured, “Thank you very much,”
“You’re very welcome, Miss Bertha,”
Looking as if she was finally comfortable enough to discuss what was ailing her, Bertha slowly turned to look at me directly. Her eyes were glassy and had a far-away kind of look.
“Now, now, I need to repay the money to the bank, or they’ll take my house,” she said in a trembling voice.
Unaware of any of Bertha’s supposed financial problems, I quickly respond, “No, no, Miss Bertha. Don’t worry about any of that. You’ve paid off all of your dues, and now you’re here with us.”
Looking a little relieved she warbled, “Are you sure, now? I’m sure I had to pay $145 dollars to someone down the road. And I’m so bad with money. I-I can’t understand…” her voice slowly trailed off, and I saw her features contort as if she was about to start crying.
At this, I gently massaged her back and assuaged her, saying, “No, no. I’m sure you’ve paid it all. Nothing to worry about now. You’ve had a long day, haven’t you? Why don’t you get some rest?”
For the first time, I saw the corners of her lips lift slowly upward and found that she was smiling at me. As I was sitting just a few feet away from her, she took my hand and held it firmly.
“You’re a good friend to have,” she murmured to me. Touched by this display of affection, I said, “Thank you Miss Bertha, and I love having you as a friend too,”
After a couple moments of silence, I had expected her grip on my hand to loosen in order to signal her desire for me to leave. But it didn’t. In fact, she began to squeeze my hand with a greater intensity as if looking for solace with the contact.
Her eyes still fixed on some distant location, she whispered, “I’m afraid that if I let go, you’ll disappear from my life forever,”
In that moment I realized that Bertha had momentarily gained consciousness of her dementia, of her mind’s failing ability to process reality and those around her. The people in her life had become nothing more than faceless, vaporous shadows, flitting about her peripheral vision. She fleetingly remembers comforting words and presences just to forget them moments later, leaving her alone and exposed to the chaotic shifting of her thoughts.
Unable to remember and depend on the emotional support system the assisted living center has provided her, Bertha often falls into abject despair. I often see her sobbing into a Kleenex. Her eyes reddened from the stress, her body slowly rocking and back in forth. Whenever I ask her what’s wrong, it’s always the same thing.
“I’m a mess. I h-have no control over anything. I want to go home.”
When she says this, I realize that home isn’t just a place with her friends and family. Home is a place where everything is familiar, and calm, and safe. But with her dementia, she’s unable to recognize anything or anyone anymore. In other words, there is no longer anything familiar, calm, or safe in Miss Bertha’s world. So even though she has a roof over her head and people who love and care for her, Bertha’s essentially homeless.