The National Catholic Review

Ash Wednesday in my stepmother’s Alzheimer’s complex saw twenty or so residents, aged 80 to 105, sitting in the Solarium in blank silence. Surely, here we needed no ashes to “Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shall return.”

Every patient in this locked facility suffers from dementia or a brain impairment that damages their ability to think and converse coherently  Memories of the immediate and long term past become lost and comprehension of the present fades in and out. 

I always have accepted physical deterioration as inevitable, but clung to the belief that the real me inside, would remain the same despite age and disease.  Not so. On each visit I have had to confront the fact  that brain damage brings devastating personal change—whoever you are, or once were..

Without my stepmother’s remembering of our shared past, or much intact language facility, I can only communicate love through touch, hugging, simple chitchat and physical assistance with her walker.

After hours of efforts to affectionately connect I too can sink passively into the lined up rocking chairs.  But suddenly on this Wednesday morning, “Bam,” a surprise visitor appears. A youngish balding tornado in a tuxedo roars into the room like a combination of the Cat in the Hat and Ethel Merman. This electrifying performer brings a boom box, a microphone, and a raucous repertoire of songs and playful patter.

Loud Mardi Gras jazz music blasts forth as our guest sings, dances, jokes and gleefully prances around the room on his mission.  Like the Cat in the Hat he breaks the rules of decorum in the cause of his audience’s delight.  He flirts, hugs, kisses and sings to each lady in the room, calling her by name.

Those residents who can still stand are pulled up into an enthusiastic (and supportive) embrace in order to dance around a few steps to the beat.  Those confined to wheel chairs are grasped by their hands while their partner whirls around them.  All the while a stream of endearments and encouragement pour forth with more kisses, more hugs, more compliments, more singing and lively patter.

This born performer jollies every woman, no matter how withdrawn, to move, to smile, to speak, sing a word or two, and clap for one another’s efforts.  This light hearted silliness lights up the room.  For the finale we had a rousing and soul satisfying stomp, “Oh when the saints go marching in,  Lord, how I want to be in that number, When the saints go marching in.”

This unforgettable Ash Wednesday rite, rightly prefigured resurrection joy.  No more Lenten penance could ever be required for these survivors.  Later in the day, an apt scriptural passage flashed into my mind.

Jesus is teaching in the Synagogue when a crippled woman appears “bent over and entirely unable to stand up straight.” (Luke 13:11)  He calls her to him and says, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” Then, Jesus laid “his hands on her and she immediately stood up straight and began praising God.” Oh yes.  Lord, how I want to be in that number when you set all sufferers free.

Comments

Anonymous | 2/27/2009 - 10:02pm
Whatever I do to the least of my brothers, I do it to God. I volunteer for Catholic Pastoral Care Unit inside a public hospital. I visit dying patients every week. I believe God is hidden behind them, revealing to me the truth and what love is. I'm grateful that HE gives me this opportunity to discover myself and most importantly, be close to HIM.
Anonymous | 2/27/2009 - 3:20pm
I appreciate Sydney Callahan's reflections on death and ensuing resurrection joy. I write with a seprate message. As a gerontologist with a special interest in dementia care, I cannot erase the mental images evoked by Callahan of the "twenty or so residents, aged 80 to 105, sitting in the Solarium in blank silence," and "the lined up rocking chairs." Though I am sure that no negative reflection on the quality of care or quality of life in that "facility" was intended, the picture painted is that of an institution where good medical care is provided. There have been wonderful and much-needed changes in the approach to dementia care where one will not find lined up rocking chairs or people slumping in their wheelchairs. It is in nursing homjes that have moved from "institution" to "home." A mastereful look at these changes is described in Beth Baker's best-seller, OLD AGE IN A NEW AGE: THE POWER OF TRANSFORMATIVE NURSING HOMES. I highly recommend it to everyone. Meanwhile, Sidney Callahan honors her stepmother by her faithful, loving presence. I offer my support for Sidney and all others of us who walk with someone with Alzheimer's Disease.