I didn’t know that Mother’s Day 2016 would be the last one Mom and I would spend together.
That morning, to honour her, I had led the service at the Universalist Unitarian Church in the village; it included the telling of a short story for the children and young at heart: Pookie, an Ivy Wallace tale about the winged rabbit who didn’t belong. Everyone loved it.
That afternoon, I went to see Mom at the LTCF.* I rescued her, as I usually did on my daily visits, from a recliner in the second-floor sunroom, and wheeled her downstairs. At the time, Mom was in what many would call the “later stages” of Alzheimer disease. Many would have also thought she was “no longer there.” I knew better.
Her decline had been exacerbated by the antipsychotics she had been inappropriately prescribed, and was still being given despite my three-year-long battle to have them stopped. Because of the immediate as well as the cumulative side effects of the drugs, as well as the ways in which she was being physically restrained, she was sometimes unable to stand, let alone walk. She would also sometimes “list” to one side or the other. On Sunday, May 8, 2016, she leaned decidedly to the right. I knew from experience there was no point trying to straighten her; her drugged body would simply not comply, and after being righted would slump right back to where it had been.
Her aphasia ranged from moderate to severe. Mostly she conversed through repetition. Nevertheless, she still loved being social; she mirrored, repeated, and tapped or clapped to engage with others. These were not symptoms of Alzheimer’s; rather, they were the communication tools she had at her disposal. Sometimes she was clear and articulate; occasionally, her “intuitive clairvoyance shone through and from time to time she surprised me with statements of deep wisdom and understanding.
Together we got her settled on the sofa in the drawing room. Here’s part of what that sounded like (about two minutes long):
Once we were comfortable, I told Mom about sharing Pookie’s story in church. Of course she didn’t remember Pookie, or the fact that she had read the story to me hundreds of times when I was a little girl. But I knew she would be as captivated by the magical tale as I had been then. So for the first time, I told Mom Pookie’s story, which has many parallels to my own life.
All of this was rich in meaning, love and magic, and is/was such a gift for both of us. Equally important is what the hearing of Pookie’s story elicited in Mom: joy, wonder, worry, curiosity, empathy, compassion, concern, love, laughter, excitement, amusement, and more.
Her response was a clear demonstration that despite the disease, the drugs, and the challenges she faced every day, Mom’s spirit, humanity and capacity for emotion were still intact. It shows that the arts (music, singing, dancing, drawing, painting, writing, and others) should be integral care components for individuals who live with dementia.
When I got to part of Pookie dancing on top of a toadstool, Mom laughed spontaneously for the first time in months—”mask-like face” and lack of expressiveness being among the many side effects of the medication she was being given. I believe storytelling is almost on par with music in terms of its potential to engage people who live with dementia, just as it is a meaningful way to connect with almost anyone at any stage of life.
This is me telling Mom Pookie’s story on Mother’s Day 2016 (a bit of background noise makes it a little hard to understand in a couple of places, so I’ve included a transcript under the audio clip for clarity; but to truly get a sense of the engagement you really must listen to the audio, which is about eight minutes long):
Transcript of the telling of the story of Pookie
Pookie was an amazing little rabbit but, and he couldn’t sleep at night. Oh dear. He wanted to sleep all day even through mealtimes. Oh oh oh oh oh, well that was fine. Yeah, so what happened was when it was time to put all the little bunnies to bed Pookie was up and bouncing around and hopping and ready to roll and that used to keep ‘cause all the little rabbits, all the babies slept in one bed. Oh my goodness, so. So all is bouncing around kept up Pookie’s brothers and sisters so they put him in a little bed all by himself. Oh dear.
Yeah, but that wasn’t the worst of it Mom. No. No, and the mother would say to little Pookie: “Oh Pookie,” she’d say, “you’re more trouble than Swivelkins and Twinkle Toes and Flopsy and Mopsy and Bobasina and Tomasina and little Wee One all combined!” Oh gosh.
Yeah. Isn’t that cute eh? Yeah, and even that wasn’t the worst of it. The thing was is that Pookie had wings – imagine wings. Imagine wings. A rabbit with wings, which he couldn’t fly with them. Oh dear. They were just little. They weren’t properly formed you know. Oh dear. They would always get in the way when Pookie’s mother tried to dress Pookie she tried rolling up his little wings and putting ribbons on them, but then the ribbons would fall off, and she couldn’t get the sweaters on and it was a real problem. Oh gee.
Yeah. So anyway one night Pookie was awake as usual and he decided to go out into the forest and explore and he came across a party of fairies and elves and goblins and all kinds of nighttime folk that come out in the forest at night. Oh my goodness. They were playing violins and tambourines and drums and all kinds of music, fairy music and they were all dancing round and round. So Pookie hopped up on a toadstool and started to dance woo hoo. (Mom laughs.) Oh dear, the land was was no no no he didn’t want to be be be be be. He didn’t want to be on his own. No. He wanted to be part of the gang.Yeah.
He wanted to be in the crew. So there he was dancing on top of the toadstool woo hoo like that. No no no no isn’t that funny? Yeah, and then again and boom! He fell right on his ass on the forest floor. No, isn’t that funny? And when he fell down he happened to fall beside two little goblins and they said, and he told them some of his story and then they said “well Pookie you should go off and seek your fortune.” Oh oh oh, and he didn’t want to do that eh?
Well first of all he didn’t know what a fortune was. Hm hmmmm. And second of all he really didn’t want to leave his family and his four brothers and three sisters and his mother and father but he was feeling like he really didn’t belong there, you know he was different from all the other rabbits. Yeah, oh yeah. So he packed a little hobo bag and in it he put a half a lettuce and an apple and some walnuts and off he went the next night No. To seek his fortune. Oh no. Yeah. So he travelled through the forest and he met all kinds of people. All kinds of, you know, toads and frogs and squirrels and owls and some helped him and some didn’t. Yeah.
One night, one day actually, he was sleeping under a bush and somebody took all his food – his half a lettuce and is his walnuts and— So what what what he didn’t do? Well he kept going and it was just on the edge of winter Mom, and it was getting very cold and so a big snowstorm came and Pookie got lost— Oh no. Yeah he got lost in the forest in this snowstorm. The snow was coming down, it was white, he couldn’t see and the wind was blowing in he was all alone. Oh no. Yeah, and just when he finally kind of lost courage, he collapsed— Oh gee, that would be bad eh? Yeah, in a snow bank. But what he didn’t realize was luckily the snow bank was on the front stoop of the wood cutter’s cottage. Oh gee.
That was lucky eh? Yeah, that was lucky. And inside the woodcutter’s cottage was the woodcutter’s daughter. Oh no. Her name was Belinda. Oh my goodness. Yeah and Belinda heard the thump when Pookie fell on the porch on the step and so she opened the door and the wind was blowing and she picked up little Pookie who was so sad and discouraged after all this travelling that his little heart was frozen and broken in two. Oh no.
Yeah. Anyway, Belinda picked up Pookie and she saw his little heart broken in two and she brought him inside and she put her hands around the little heart and warmed it all up and then stuck it back into his little rabbit chest and bundled him all up and put him in a nice bed beside the wood stove. Oh gee. That was good eh Mom? Yeah, that was good and that was good he was he was he was at least he was he was he was wonderful.
Yeah exactly. And then the next day, or that night rather, when Pookie woke up after sleeping all day Belinda noticed his little wings. They were all shriveled and not grown and she said “Oh Pookie, look you’ve got wings.” And so she kissed both of his wings, one on the right side and one on the left and then wouldn’t you know it, because of Belinda’s love, oh those wings grew into big beautiful wings that were coloured like rainbows and they had glitter on them and they were just absolutely fabulous. No. Yeah. And so Pookie became able to fly with those wings. Oh gosh.
That was good eh? That was wonderful. It was. And so from that day on Pookie lived with Belinda, the woodcutter’s daughter, in the little cottage by the edge of the woods and he would sleep all day in his little basket and then at night he would go out flying into the woods and have a great time. Don’t tell me. Yeah. Oh that would be funny. That was good eh? Yeah, that was good.
That was the story of Pookie.
*Note: Some people have suggested to me that I should avoid the acronym “LTCF” in favour of something else. Replace the “F” in LTCF with an “H” for home, they say. I will be happy to do so when places like the one my mom was in are more like homes than warehouses and elder jails. Until then, I’m sticking with “facility.”