We were three hours into our waiting-room vigil when Joan jumped to her feet, clapped her hands and pointed excitedly down the hall. A huge smile spread across her face, replacing the forlorn expression that had been present since breakfast.
Joan was in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and the change in environment from home to an unfamiliar hospital in Milwaukee had been difficult. Her husband was undergoing a complex aneurysm surgery, so her son Sean and I were trying to keep her occupied as we spent a long morning waiting for news.
I turned to see what was causing Joan’s excitement but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, just a couple of women walking toward us and the same fake plants and old magazines we had passed by multiple times that morning.
I looked at Sean and he shrugged, equally puzzled. It was clear that Joan saw something we didn’t.
The two women heading our way looked enough alike that I assumed they were sisters. Both were quite tall, close to six feet by my estimation, and they shared the same stocky build. The younger of the two was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, and the older one was wearing a football jersey. The closer they came, the more excited Joan became, and when they got within a few feet of us she launched herself at the woman in the green and gold jersey.
“And what position do you play?”
In an instant I understood. While I saw a middle-aged woman in a football jersey, Joan saw a Green Bay Packer, and it thrilled her. She grabbed hold of the startled woman, pumping her arm up and down in a vigorous handshake, beaming up into her face.
The silence was deafening as two sets of strangers looked at each other, Sean and I on one side and the sisters on the other, all of us wondering how to react. I watched as varied emotions played across the woman’s face: surprise, confusion, and the beginnings of indignation. Her sister was rooted in place, her mouth hanging open in shock.
Sean broke the silence. “This is Joan,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “She has Alzheimer’s and is a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers.” He put an arm around his mother’s shoulder, trying to gently steer her away. But Joan wasn’t letting go, and continued to pump the woman’s arm and smile at her.
I spoke next, hoping the women would understand what I was about to say. “Joan has loved the Packers since she was a little girl and this is so exciting for her. It is great to meet you.” A few more seconds of awkward silence passed as the women tried to make sense of what was happening. The sister finally broke into a smile, nudging the woman held fast in Joan’s grip. “Always great to meet a fan, right? Tell her what position you play.”
“Linebacker?” It was more of a question than an answer, but it worked.
“Good for you! Good for you!” Joan finally let go, raising her hands above her head to signal a touchdown, yelling “Go Packers!” in a voice far too loud for a hospital waiting room. Many heads turned our way, and “Go Packers” was repeated enthusiastically by several people in the room. We were definitely in Packer country, and Joan’s delight in the response of other fans was obvious.
I leaned in toward the sisters, speaking softly. “Thank you so much. We never know what she is going to say next, and your kindness is much appreciated. You just made her day.”
The woman in the jersey smiled. “Who doesn’t want to be a Green Bay Packer?”
The sisters walked away, laughing at the encounter. Fifteen minutes later Joan was restless and wandering, but for a brief time she had been overjoyed. It is one of those moments I will never forget, and I hope those sisters know what a good deed they did that morning.
Not everyone was as understanding. When getting on the elevator to go down to the cafeteria, we were joined by a young couple. The woman was dressed in a short skirt and a skimpy tank top that stretched tightly across a very pregnant belly. Joan stared openly, pointed at the skin exposed below the young woman’s tank top, and followed up with a disapproving “Whoa, mister.”
The young man glared at her. “What’s your problem, old lady?”
Joan continued to gape at the woman’s belly and the young man swore at us. I stepped in front of Joan, apologizing and explaining that she meant no offense. It was a long, uncomfortable ride to the basement, and we lingered in the hall a few minutes to let the couple distance themselves before we entered the cafeteria.
Lunch was an equally uncomfortable experience. Joan struggled to get started on her meal and as she littered the table with ketchup packets, the people at the next table made some very unkind remarks about her table manners.
In the course of a few hours with Joan, Sean and I had witnessed compassion, humor, anger, confrontation and ridicule, all of it resulting from her behavior and tendency to say whatever came to mind. Sean and I talked about how we could best protect her, knowing that other people’s reactions to her would be as unpredictable as her outbursts. As so often happens, it was a passing comment that triggered an idea.
“It would be much easier if we just carried a sign saying she had Alzheimer’s.” Sean made this observation as he gathered the numerous shredded napkins Joan had strewn across the table.
“Why not?” I said. “What do we have to lose? Not a sign, of course, but what if we had a little card that said we were with someone who had Alzheimer’s disease and we hoped they would understand? If people know why she is saying or doing something that seems off, maybe they would be more willing to work with us. It’s worth a try.”
I had some business cards printed that explained Joan’s situation, and whenever I was with her in public, I kept a few cards handy. I gave them to waitresses, cashiers, women at the beauty parlor, and anyone else I thought might need one. The majority of people were very receptive, and it was an inexpensive and effective way of helping Joan remain a part of her community a little while longer. Giving people information about what they were seeing allowed them to show compassion, understanding and acceptance. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
And with apologies to my beloved Chicago Bears, Go Packers!
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home, a memoir of an emotional journey made by Colleen and her first love Sean to transport his ailing parents to an assisted-living facility in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story about the messiness of life, death, friendship, and, ultimately, the power of love. The book is available at colleenlanier.com.