After the escape –-which they call elopement, as if you’ve gone to Vegas to do something sexy or clever with a hot partner by your side—The Place in Hollywood put tight restrictions on the poor girl. She was tried and found guilty behind closed doors in Tom’s third floor office, and the verdict was that she would spend daytime confined to The Neighborhood. After sundowning, an escort would take her back to her room.
For this safety measure we were covertly charged $25 an hour to have an additional “PAL” who took my mother for cigarette breaks and generally kept a watchful eye on her, like an agent for the KGB. This cost was in addition to the $7,000 monthly residential fee, partly paid out by long term care, thanks to my late father’s forethought.
My mother could barely make a move and was growing increasingly irritated with the new routine that included glop for breakfast, fill-in-the-blank worksheets with song lyrics from another era, word groups and consonant reminders, color-coordinated puzzles, weekly appearances by well-meaning off-key singers belting “Rhinestone Cowboy,” or “This Land is Your Land,” who were accompanied by karaoke-style boxes or acoustic guitars. Time ticked loudly in The Neighborhood, a land of lost personalities, hauntings, and stick figures.
I got to know one of her neighbors, Charles, a tall, broad-shouldered, soft-spoken former History professor, originally from Oklahoma, whose Mr. Rodgers’ smile and cardigan sweater made him feel like a safe bet for a table partner. We had a few elliptical conversations about his family and his grown children. It was always hard to tell if folks with dementia really knew their own stories, so I learned to go with whatever they provided.
“My mother’s an actress,” I told him, as we put some oversized pieces in a puzzle. “She did a lot of New York theatre.”
Charles nodded. He’d been to New York. My mother listened, waiting for a cue to speak.
“Do you like the theatre, Charles?” I asked.
Charles looked away, maybe distracted by a woman stamping her foot and shaking a plush bear at one of the aides. Or maybe he had a thought, an actual yearning or desire that was not fully formed.
After a long pause. “I like your mother,” Charles said, smiling.
During my visits to Tom’s office, I played my mother’s attorney, therapist, healthcare proxy, financial manager, social worker, mediator, best friend, and daughter. I asked for an adjustment to her meds, to manage the lost hours of weeping. The mobile doctor prescribed Seroquel, a controversial benzo, used to treat schizophrenia, that has a black box warning but can also be helpful in some cases. I wasn’t a fan of the meds, but the truth is the doctors are at a loss. They got nothing. There’s no cure. Everyone knows it, so they try different things to alleviate symptoms. Despondency is a symptom. Hallucinations are a symptom. Aggression is a symptom. Memory loss is a symptom.
In Tom’s tidy office, I asked for leniency for her crime. Yes, Pat pled guilty to setting off fire alarms in the middle of the night, bothering another resident by banging on the walls with a Mason Pearson hairbrush, and attempting a daring escape that ended in a dramatic, LAPD rescue. I asked Tom if, despite her trespasses, she could stay upstairs in her suite, where she could hear classical music or jazz in place of the insect buzzer, or eat ice cream for breakfast if she chose to. I promised there would be no more incidents and pleaded to end her sentence in The Neighborhood. She’s not ready for the lockdown ward, I said.
“I know it’s hard to accept that Mom’s in a new stage of the disease,” Tom said, “But we’re trying to keep her safe. The Neighborhood’s the best place for that.”
This was not what I wanted to hear. “Didn’t you say there was something that happened down there that you wanted to talk about?”
Tom ignored the phone ringing on his desk, and the distant sound of quiet wailing in the hallway. “She’s been sundowning. That’s the hour of the day when –“
“I know what sundowning is. They wander, they moan, they’re disoriented because they’re on a different clock.”
“That’s right,” said Tom. “She was sundowning and something may have upset her—she’s been having some issues with one of the other residents – and, well, your mom threw a tray at one of the aides.”
I nodded. I must admit, I wanted to applaud.