by Colleen Lanier
It was one of those days when absolutely everything was a struggle. Three days into a weeklong visit with Joan and Henry, I was still adjusting to Joan, who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Joan and Henry had been like second parents to me since I was in high school, and their son Sean was my best friend. We’d traveled to Wisconsin to help with Joan while Henry recovered from surgery.
Henry tired easily and had little patience for Joan when she was having a bad day. When getting her dressed took nearly an hour, I knew this would be one of Joan’s tougher days. Sean and I decided it was best to divide and conquer, so he focused on his father and I concentrated on Joan.
I was in the kitchen, preparing a dinner of grilled cheese and tomato soup. It was a good choice for a cold January day, and, given Joan’s struggles throughout the day, I thought its simplicity would be easy for her to handle. Sean and his father played cribbage at the dining room table, and Joan slowly circled the great room, stopping to watch her husband and son and then passing through the kitchen on her way back into the living room.
I tried to include her, asking if she could help me. She nodded yes, so I handed her four plates. “Could you put these on the dining room table, please? That would really help me out.”
Joan promptly put the plates in the dishwasher, and walked into the living room.
When she passed through the kitchen a few minutes later, I tried again, pointing to the dining room. “Could you please give these plates to your husband? He is waiting to set the table.”
She took the plates readily and put them back in the cupboard, smiling at me before heading for the dining room table. She sat next to her son, helping herself to his iced tea. I gave up and served each person individually. I joined them at the table, and Henry, Sean and I dug in.
Joan rearranged her food a few times, poked her grilled cheese with a fork, and then dumped the whole bowl of oyster crackers into my cup of soup. The crackers overflowed my cup, rolling across the table and onto the floor. She crawled under the table to retrieve them, and Henry’s frustration boiled over.
“Joan, stop it! Sit down and eat. You knew how to eat yesterday, so please get off the floor and have dinner with us! Stop fooling around!”
Sean laid his hand on his father’s forearm. “Dad, she’s having a bad day. It happens. Yelling won’t help. She’ll eat when she is ready.”
Henry sighed loudly but let it go.
I stuck my head under the table. “Joan,” I said, “your dinner is ready. You might want to eat it while it’s hot.”
She finally settled into her seat, picked up half a grilled cheese, and tried to scoop the cheese out with her index finger. Once she had a finger full of cheese, she dropped her sandwich and put her finger in her mouth. Unfortunately, the sandwich landed right in her soup, and her tan blouse was splashed heavily. She tried to wipe the soup off her blouse with her bare hands, which made it worse. I suggested we go wash our hands and was relieved when she followed me into the master bathroom.
Her jeans were okay, so I helped her take off the stained blouse and pulled a shirt from her closet. It was festooned with images of birdhouses, and she seemed to be happy with my choice. As we started to leave the bathroom, she caught sight of her toothbrush and I knew she would need a few more minutes. She loved to brush her teeth, and it could take her 5-10 minutes. I gave her some privacy and returned to the table.
“Brushing her teeth,” I said in response to the questioning looks from Sean and Henry.
They nodded, and we enjoyed a few minutes of calm.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Henry said, his voice dripping with exasperation. He shook his head and pointed toward the living room. “What now?”
Joan was walking towards us with an exaggerated gait, almost a strut, smiling and humming to herself. In addition to the birdhouse shirt I’d helped her put on, she had added a gingham housecoat, one of Henry’s flannel shirts, black patent leather pumps, and enormous crystal chandelier earrings.
Sean smiled. “That’s quite an outfit, Mom. What’s the occasion?”
Joan didn’t answer right away. She stood at the head of the table, looked us over, and, much to our surprise, started singing and dancing.
“La da dee, lad da dah. Yup, yup, yup . . . oh baby, baby. La la la de dah.” The melody was unfamiliar, but she was enjoying herself, raising her hands above her head and tapping in her heels. She clapped, twirled and continued to sing. As her voice rose, she approached her finale, raising her right leg and stomping it down hard enough to dislodge an earring. As the earring hit the floor, Joan pivoted and flung her arms out, one down near her knee and the other above her head, shaking it as if holding an invisible tambourine aloft.
“TA DA!” She held her position, beaming.
I stole a quick glance at Sean and Henry, who were equally stunned. Not knowing what else to do, I started clapping. Sean followed my lead. Joan was delighted, and curtsied, bowed and blew kisses.
In spite of himself, Henry gave in to the joy radiating off Joan and started clapping. And laughing, a deep rolling laughter that I hadn’t heard from him in a long time. “Joan, you always were a good dancer.”
As she took a few more bows, Joan caught sight of half a grilled cheese and the new cup of soup Sean had put out for her while we were in the bathroom. She pointed. “Can I eat that?”
“Help yourself,” Sean said.
She did, sitting down and cleaning her plate. She asked for seconds, and ate without any difficulty at all. When she was finished, she wiped her plate with a napkin and returned the plate to the kitchen cupboard. The napkin went into the refrigerator.
Henry shook his head, but instead of correcting her, he chuckled. Joan’s unexpected performance had lightened the mood, and as she danced her way into the living room, we clapped for her. It was a pleasant evening, and seeing both Joan and Henry smiling was a treat.
I never saw Joan dance again, and am grateful that we reacted the way we did. When dealing with the daily struggles of Alzheimer’s disease, moments of joy can be few and far between, and it’s important to make the most of them. I believe that laughter really is the best medicine, and maybe we all need a round of applause every once in a while.
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home and The Scenic Route. Both books are available at colleenlanier.com.
Photo was taken by Karen Keller Capuciati.