Thursday, November 21, 2013

Humor's Healing Art

This happened last month. Bonnie, the retired WWU professor, herself grey haired, brought her two therapy dogs to the long term care center where my mother resides.  With the residents circled around in their wheelchairs, she put her eager Australian Labradoodles through their paces, rewarding them with minuscule treats for some pretty unspectacular tricks: catching balls, sitting, lying down and occasionally doing a “high five.”  The residents’ responses are muted. They show their enthusiasm primarily by showing up for repeat performances once a month.  Some doze, some watch silently, and a few smile and make comments. 

One of the blond fluffy dogs was excited about the tricks, or more likely, the treats, and started barking, short woofs directed at his owner.  We were all focused on this activity in the center ring when I heard more barking coming from elsewhere in the room.   I looked around and realized one of the residents was barking back to the dog, and simultaneously, that it was my mother.  She was trying to catch his eye (was it JuJu or was it Itzy?) and was doing a pretty darn good imitation of his bark. I was surprised because my mother has never been much of a barker.

Almost all the residents have some degree of dementia.  Few of them have peer conversations.  Some may participate in “assisted” conversation with a staff member or family member.  My mother’s verbal skills seem to recede overnight, or after she has been alone for a few hours.  Her sentences are halting, and her words may be far off the mark of what she wants to talk about.  I have phone conversations with her where I can’t decipher the gist of her thought—something about a bag on the floor, and something spinning, somebody hungry, and then I get it.  She is asking me to fill the bird feeder that hangs outside her window. 

For no medical reason that I know of, my mother has lost the part of her brain that censors what she says.  Or that tells her not to make noises.  She vocalizes nonstop, mmm hmmm, noises that my sister thinks are self-soothing, but that others find irritating.

This morning, my mother read me the joke from the daily schedule.
Q: Why did the bird go to the doctor?
A: To get a tweet-ment.

Last week, we were in the ophthalmologists’ waiting room. We joined the other grey haired patients who were quietly reading magazines or staring at the TV monitor imparting education about cataracts. I handed her a People magazine.  She carefully turned page after page, commenting on how pretty the girls looked, and reading out loud the ads, the captions, the subscription policy (until the print got too small) and then the article about the actress who just landed the part of Samantha on Sex and the City. In the clear voice that she used to read the headline, my mother read the first line to the waiting room: “’We got straight to business,’ she says of her first day on the New York set. ‘I was in underwear and pasties.’” At that point, I leaned over and quietly suggested that she read that one to herself.

She has always loved to read and now reads out loud whatever she sees.  Recently, I handed her a new sweater still encased in a plastic bag, and she immediately said in her halting voice:  “Warning: To avoid danger of suffocation, keep this plastic bag away from babies and children. Do not use this bag in cribs, beds, carriages, or playpens. This bag is not a toy.”
“Mom,” I said to redirect her attention when she was done, “I got you a new sweater.”

This morning I dialed her phone number for my usual 9 am check-in call. She had trouble getting the phone to her ear.  I could hear her in the background saying “Don’t hang up, don’t hang up” as she struggled to untangle the curly cord and get the handset in place.  I said my hello and asked how she was.  She started out saying “I’m not talking to anyone.”  I considered whether she was mad or just alone. When I couldn’t deduce her meaning I asked where she was. 

“I’m in my private wheelchair.”

“Are you dressed?”

“Yes, I’m dressed in a horrible brown skirt. I didn’t want to wear it.”

“Do you have your call button?”

“The telephone wires are tangled up around the wheelchair.”

“Do you have the call button? The red button on the cord that you push when you need help?”

“Yes, but I can’t reach it.”

My stomach tightens. “Is it too far away from you to reach?” The aides more than occasionally leave the call button out of her reach.

“No, I can reach it but I can’t bring it up to my mouth.”

The call button is just that: a red button on the end of a cord.  When the button is pushed, a light lights up in the hall.  I imagine that this simple system has been in place many years at this facility, as I also imagine that it won’t be put to rest until the maintenance guy can no longer jerry rig fixes, or perhaps DSHS mandates an upgrade.  Whereas most hospitals have a speaker system which allows for two-way communication with the patient, this one has no microphone or speaker. 

Step one: Button is pushed
Step two: Light lights
Step three: (In an ideal world) Someone notices the light
Step four: (Even more ideal) Someone chooses to respond by walking down to her room.

The capabilities of this system are much less than my mother believes.  After she pushes the red button, she bends her white head forward and holds the button up to her mouth.  She very courteously announces her name.

“This is Cooie Hedman in room 120,” she says into the button, and then continues with what it is that she wants.  “I need someone to help me get cleaned up.”

Even the social worker burst out laughing the first time she saw this behavior.

“Don’t laugh,” I said, “She is completely serious.”

Nothing that I or anyone else says to my mother helps her realize that they can’t hear her. “I have to tell them what I need,” she says with finality. 

If only there were a compassionate capable listener at the receiving end listening to her needs when she announced them.

I picture my mother reading this passage in the future.  She’s in heaven, her faculties are restored and her legs are working perfectly.  She is surrounded by loving people (as much as she wants).  She gets PB&J on white bread whenever she wants, and chocolate ice cream for dessert every day.  Her two youngest ones, the ones she asks about every day, will be with her, as will her Daddy, the person she calls for when she’s delirious. She won’t have to choose between Bingo and massage, since she can do them both at once if she wants.

She won’t have to wait for someone to push her wheelchair down to the dining room, or put up with showers given twice a week in a cold room by strangers.  She won’t have to struggle to figure out what day it is.  She won’t have to depend on any technology. She will feel buoyant, freed of the grip of gravity on an aging body, and she would be rich, rolling in money, able to buy all the pleasure that money can grant.  She will read this passage with perfect eyesight. 

She'll know what a great person she is, and know how much we admire her enthusiasm for every day.  She'd know in her bones that we love her. 

And her daughter, her daughter will exhale, knowing that her mother is OK.   


  1. thinking of your mother and of your at your birthday time

    1. Thanks, Leslie! and thanks for remembering my birthday!

  2. Thank You Sky & Lynne for helping Mom retain her dignity thru your compassion. Love, Peggy