During this challenge I’ve taken a few looks at what life is like for people with dementia living in a special facility. I’ve hoped to convey that their days aren’t grim and sad, in spite of what many people without experience with this disease might think. People are still individuals, and in many cases those who have enjoyed laughing throughout their lives may still be able to laugh.
Naomi is a fairly new resident in my mother’s unit. Her dementia is as yet mild. We’ve been able to hold conversations with her. But Naomi is very thin. If she were a teenager you’d swear she had anorexia. And she doesn’t want to eat. She’ll sit at the dinner table for a few minutes, then get up and walk away, in spite of the efforts of the CNAs to get her to stay there. “I don’t want anything to eat,” she says.
Diane is a CNA (certified nursing assistant) from Haiti. She’s short but hefty and strong, and she loves to tease Naomi. When Naomi starts to leave the table, Diane stands in her way. “Where you going?”
Naomi mumbles something, pointing toward the living room.
“No, you don’t. You going to eat.” Diane puts her arms around Naomi. “Look at this, how skinny you are.” She tightens her grasp; Naomi makes a face and starts to laugh. “I can pick you up,” Diane says. “You want me to pick you up and carry you?” “No no no,” Naomi laughs.
By now both women are laughing, Naomi trying to wriggle away from Diane. It’s clear that Naomi is enjoying this mock struggle, enjoying having such attention, having her wits challenged. In the end she manages to slip away, but she’ll later concede and eat some dinner. My husband and I are watching this little contest and laughing along with them.
My mother has always had a wonderful sense of humor. She is a genuinely funny person, funny in her sometimes acerbic comments and her self-deprecation. Even with dementia stealing more and more of her mind, she was able to laugh at some of the things she did. I honestly think this helped keep her from falling into despair. My husband makes her laugh; he teases her and she loves it. He’ll put on a silly hat, or they’ll trade good-natured barbs. He has been wonderful over the past few years in helping to distract her when she’s started to get upset.
This hat dances and plays "Holly Jolly Christmas"!
Shortly after she moved in, when I was still worried about how she would adjust, I was visiting her on an afternoon; we were sitting at a table in the dining area having coffee and tea. In the adjacent living area the activities director was playing catch with some of the residents, throwing a large plastic ball around. People were shouting and laughing. My mother started watching them, and she began to laugh, too. When the ball sailed over the top of a couch and headed toward us, she seemed to be enjoying the playfulness of it. And though I knew she would never take part in any of those games--that isn’t who she is--I felt better knowing that she could get a kick out of watching them. I think it was then that I started to feel that she would be okay after all.