The warning travels past its intended recipient down the hall, around the corner and into the living room where I’m transferring Mom from an armchair into a wheelchair. I’ve heard gentler “Achtungs” from soldiers in Frankfurt airport, I think to myself as I prepare to take Mom up to the dementia floor for supper.
Mom used to enjoy her meals with her friend Gaby in the main dining room, but then the staff said she was “difficult to manage,” always wanting to get up and walk around, so she has to eat in the dementia ward where people are fed instead of feeding themselves, and everything is uniformly creamy in texture. The only way to tell the carrots from the peas, potatoes or meat is the colour. I often wonder if the dollops of orange, green, white and grey glop taste any different one from the other, but I can’t bring herself to test them. My stomach flips at the thought.
“Hannah!” The voice is angrier this time; it belongs to the one I mentally call Nurse Ratched. “Don’t touch!!”
“I was repairing it–” Hannah, who is in the mid-stages of dementia attempts to justify whatever it is she has done to get on Ratched’s rather broad bad side.
“You weren’t repairing it!” You were erasing it!” Ratched scolds.
“No, I–” Hannah tries again.
“Give me that!” Nurse Ratched commands. “Go and sit down!”
I have no idea what precipitated the exchange, but I often hears Ratched and her colleagues speak to residents like bad parents do their ill-behaved children.
“No Agnes, I’m busy. You’ll have to wait,” to the 96-year-old with rouge on her cheeks as she stands by the nurses’ station with her walker.
“You can’t have more now, you just finished one,” to rail-thin Diane who constantly opens cupboards in search of a drink.
“You’ll just have to deal with it,” when Elizabeth, who’s body seems to be tied up in painful knots, complains of not being able to breathe.
I know the kind of treatment Mom gets when I’m not there is the same kind I see and hear doled out to others when I visit. Worse than the words is the delivery: almost invariably in that tone. The one that would make you want to smack anyone who used it on you. It’s why Mom is being sedated for aggressive behaviour. She went beyond wanting to give them a smack; she went ahead and did it. Along with their memories and the ability to process things like the rest of us, people who live with Alzheimer’s disease leave social graces behind. They say what they mean and act how they feel, often to the chagrin of those on the receiving end of their frank comments and unfiltered reactions.
I put one hand behind Mom’s left knee and lift her foot onto the footrest with the other. Mom’s legs are full of bruises, bandages and band-aids; they stem the Coumadin tide. I repeat the process with the left foot, and then kick free the wheel locks. It’s 4:45 p.m.; dinner is at 5. The main floor dining room is next to the living room where Mom, Gaby and I have been for the last hour and a half drinking tea, singing songs and talking nonsense. Gaby left a few minutes earlier under her own steam.
Apparently, Nurse Ratched doesn’t know Mom and I are in the living room within earshot.
“Hannah! I said go and sit down!” she snaps again.
Meanwhile, Mom and I are in motion. We roll out of the living room and around the corner into the hall where 90-year-old Hannah’s back comes into view. She’s leaning on her walker about 15 feet away, next to the big white board on which the month’s activities are written: Tuesday afternoon: bingo; Thursday morning: sing-along; Sunday afternoon: religious service; “Phyllis’ birthday” has a green squiggle around it on the 28th.
Nurse Ratched is a few paces beyond Hannah. “She erased the six from the 26th on the calendar,” Ratched complains, presumably to another staff member in the dining room; the reply to her complaint is unintelligible from where we are. Then Ratched turns around, and sees Mom and I heading down the hall toward her.
The transformation is astonishing. Ratched closes the gap between herself and Hannah, and, without skipping a beat, puts her arm around Hannah’s shoulder. She leans in gentle and close, and says just loud enough for me to hear, “It’s time for dinner my love, would you like to go in and sit down please?” Her voice is soft, golden, liquid honey.
I hold my tongue. I’m already in enough trouble. Mom and I squeeze past Hannah and Ratched and into the elevator bound for higher ground.