For a little walk on the light side of Alzhiemer’s, I’m posting amusing stories about dementia patients every Saturday. Here’s this week’s story by Eleanor Cooney:
When Plaids Clash: Haute Couture in the Alzheimer’s Unit
My mother, all her life, was a really snappy dresser. Model-slim, her taste in clothes was simple and elegant. She and I always had a lot of fun, when I was a kid, making scathing remarks about people’s strange clothes and hair. Not in a cruel way–nobody ever heard what we said, it was strictly between us and for our mutual entertainment. My mother’s manners were exquisite (unless she lost her temper in public, which she did on occasion, and always for good reason, like with the cab driver in New York who tried to cheat her; the exchange ended with my mother slamming the cab door in his face and saying: “You JERK!”).
Alzheimer’s has a way of upending everything. A lot of you out there reading this no doubt know how it is in a typical Alzheimer’s unit–the inmates are in and out of each other’s rooms all day every day, carrying things away, bringing things in, like pack rats. Clothes, especially. Things tend to get all mixed and jumbled up, until everyone is wearing each other’s clothes, and of course, everyone is beyond caring what those clothes look like. Plus the staff in these places tend to be women, a lot of them very young, and so a great deal of effort is devoted to nail-polishing and hair-stying. Nail polish was never my mother’s thing, either–short, trimmed, plain sensible nails were her style. Likewise with her hair–curled, styled, poofy hair was just too bourgeois.
After a year or two in the Alzheimer’s unit, behold my elegant mother: nails painted red, hair curled and poofed, wearing costume jewelry and a Snoopy sweat shirt along with orange plaid pants a couple of sizes too short for her. Tragic, or comic? Both, of course, but definitely sharply, wonderfully absurd, the sort of thing over which my mother, once upon a time, would have thrown her head back and laughed heartily.
Eleanor Cooney is the author of Death In Slow Motion (HarperCollins, 2004, (www.deathinslowmotion.com), a memoir of trying (and failing) to care for her Alzheimered mother. It’s not a how-to book; it’s a For-God’s-sake-don’t-do-it-the-way-I-did-it cautionary tale. Cooney is the coauthor of three novels set in T’ang Dynasty China (http://tinyurl.com/3mhhsj3), and she’s been published in Harper’s magazine and Mother Jones. She’s just finished a novel called The Devil You Know, a noir thriller inspired by Michael Lesy’s 1973 classic Wisconsin Death Trip.