1. The poor girl was so confused she thought she was moving into a New York apartment or a facsimile of one. She thought she was leaving the two-bedroom flat in Atwater that she had sparsely but low key decorated for a doorman building with a lobby and lively people who got fully dressed during the day, a place with taxi service, restaurant-style meals and books on the shelves.
I had toured the assisted living place, we’ll call it, The Place in Hollywood, and I knew all about the activity room, the happy hour, the brain games* stationed in the hallways, the auctions and fashion shows, and best of all, the movie night. The schedule for the movie night was issued each week and taped inside the elevator with images from the upcoming films. Over the two years she lived there, my mother and I made it halfway through Big with Tom Hanks, Young Frankenstein, a favorite, and maybe part of North by Northwest.
You couldn’t blame them for trying. But you could blame them for a lot of other things.
I remember moving day as being heartbreaking for both of us. It was like dropping off an injured child at an overpriced wilderness experience, knowing they may become feral. Knowing they may not recognize you the next time you see them — or worse, they may not recognize themselves. I’d convinced myself that now that she could no longer take care of herself, this was the only choice. Or somehow the best lousy one.
We got her all settled in her suite overlooking the courtyard and met the sales agent for lunch, downstairs in the dining room. He was what my father would have called a snazzy dresser. Good shoes, in his 30s, drove a Porsche. Over the Cobb salad, he complimented my mother, telling her how many friends she would make, reminding her there were several former actors in the facility and assuring us both of how much there was to do!
When he spoke to her, it wasn’t condescension I heard, but a cheerful voice shared by nurses, aides, activity directors, and caregivers. Certain positive words were exaggerated: friends, happy, comfortable, fun, active, seniors. The expression my mother held on her elegant bones was one of polite reserve. She could still smile more or less on cues from others and she checked my reactions to see when to nod or laugh. She repeated many of her stock answers, always making sure the sales agent—and everyone she spoke to—knew that she was “born and raised in New York – and glad to be back!”
Less than 24 hours after she moved in, I arrived after work to find that she had dismantled the entire suite and had crammed a range of odd, non-packable items into her suitcases – even things she didn’t own. She put silverware on top of some silk dresses, candlesticks, knick knacks, photo albums, stuffed animals, bright plastic plates, a toaster, and a somber-covered Andrew Wyeth coffee table book.
“I’m heading out,” she said. “Back home. This place isn’t for me. Besides, they eat too early and the people are not what I’m used to. Not friendly. There’s a know-it-all down the hall.”
But she didn’t move out. Instead, the next six months were filled with paranoia, inconsolable weeping, trying new psych meds, and a steady decline of her cognitive function. Months of reading and not remembering a single line. Months of saying she was sick of bingo and salty food and having strangers wash her body and put her to bed.
Months of planning her escape…
*A study by Cambridge University found that video games improved the brain function of those with early memory problems which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.