As the immensely emotional creatures that humans are, we experience a tidal wave’s worth of emotions on a daily basis (I say “we” because I’m assuming you are human as well). On some blissful days, we’re exuberant, confident, and productive, like the placid waters of the ocean on a bright, summer day. Yet, on others we are just the opposite. Times when we are raging, despairing, and roaring, like the wild, frothing ocean waters during the icy winter months. Now if we, as the well-balanced and reasonable people that we are, are so emotionally unstable, just imagine how it is for a person who’s slowly losing their ability to control their thoughts or process reality. Just imagine how it is for a person with dementia.
Without my experiences in the assisted living center, I would have absolutely no authority to speak of the subject. Yes, perhaps I could simply Google the symptoms of dementia and give you the general idea.But because of my proximity with one very special resident, Miss Bertha, I have been made aware of the tragic and violent mood swings that people with dementia suffer from.
Most of the residents in the dementia unit are in a blissful and oblivious state of equilibrium, requiring assistance but generally cheerful. They engage in simple conversation with each other. They’re happy when they see someone wants to help them. Sure, they have their ups and downs, but they pass quickly.
Miss Bertha is different. Having been a school teacher for twenty years, she’s always been in a position of power. From having students clean the blackboard, to lecturing about European history, to having three children, Miss Bertha has always had a tremendous degree of control over her life and those of others. It is her immensely independent character that makes her dementia so difficult for her to handle. She can’t fathom the fact that as an aging individual, she needs to rely on others. From her eyes, Miss Bertha is still the same hardworking, resilient woman she was thirty years ago.
When the caregivers and I see that Miss Bertha has tired herself from walking about the facility and encourage her to sit down, she snaps, “I will not! I WON’T SIT.” As if that weren’t enough, Miss Bertha is often prone to extreme episodes of despair, anger, and frustration.
The other day, I walked by to see Miss Bertha piteously leaning over her walker, crying profusely. Accustomed to this tragic display, I walked over to her, began rubbing her back, and asked her what was wrong.
Between sobs she sputtered, “I-I just want to leave. This is p-prison!”
Appalled by the idea that she viewed assisted living as incarceration, I said, “No, no, no, Miss Bertha. This is an assisted living center. This is where we help you take care of yourself a little.”
“N-no! No one lets me leave! I want to be home with my f-family!”
My heart dropped when she said that. I imagined how disorienting and frightening it all must be. Having your loved ones put you in a strange, new place full of smiling strangers.
“Miss Bertha, they always come to visit you. And you have many friends and family that love you very much,” I spoke soothingly.
But rather than calm her as they usually did, my words did something different that day. They incited rage and rebellion.
She sharply turned her head to look at me, visibly grimacing.
“Then get me out.”
Startled, I said, “What?”
“GET ME OUT!” she spat at me with unbelievable vehemence.
Pointing an angry, crooked finger at my chest, she croaked, “I want to leave this place. And you will take me out, right now.” She stamped her walker on the ground as if to emphasize the severity of her point.
Thinking on the fly, to get her to stay for a little while, I blurted, “Miss Bertha, I’m afraid I can’t drive. We’ll have to wait for the bus. Could you stay with us until then?”
Not one to be deterred, she asked, “When is the bus coming?”
“Er, two hours.”
“TWO HOURS!” she violently shook her head at me. “NO! I WANT TO LEAVE NOW. I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR GAMES. TAKE ME OUT NOW!”
“Miss Bertha-” I began in a quiet, soothing voice, before she brashly cut me off.
“SHIT!” she exclaimed with the utmost fury.
“Don’t you ‘Miss Bertha’ me, you son of a bitch! I want to leave now!”
Accustomed to spontaneous profanity from the residents, I sadly shook my head and went to get a caregiver, who shortly took my place in consoling her.
I was only a few feet away when I heard another string of horrific profanity. In retrospect, I didn’t leave Miss Bertha because I couldn’t stand being called derogatory names. I left because the nature of her transformation was too much for me.
Just the day before her frightening episode, she had kissed my forehead as if I were her own daughter.
“You’re my best friend,” she whispered.
“Thank you, Miss Bertha.”
Firmly grasping my hand, she continued, “Please don’t leave. I don’t want to be alone.”
Ready to oblige her, I held her hand and waited for her to fall asleep in her room before I left.
And now, here she was screaming profanity at me as if I was her worst enemy. I know it didn’t mean anything. That I shouldn’t take her words too seriously.
I knew that her behavior was the result of her mind’s deteriorating ability to cope with reality and to communicate with others. I knew that she had lost the ability to self-regulate, to care about the feelings of those around her. I knew it all. It was just a lot to take.