I used to think of compassion, caregiving, and fostering community as the special talents of the staff I so admire at the dementia residence where my wife Lisa, a psychiatrist, now lives. Over time I have come to see these aptitudes also in the lives of the residents themselves, as the indefatigability of the human spirit shines through the fog of a deteriorating brain.

On a recent afternoon I was at the residence on one of my daily visits with Lisa, a ninety-year-old in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Sitting in a sheltered alcove of the residence and absorbed in a Brahms piano trio, we were shaken from our trance-like state by shouts and clamor that seemed to bounce off every wall. A woman was obviously in profound distress.

A new resident—I’ll call her Rhoda—had been admitted just a few hours before, accompanied by her husband and son. The two had stayed with Rhoda for some time, sharing coffee and a snack, and hoping to ease her transition to the new surroundings. The eventual leave-taking, visibly painful for them, was traumatic for Rhoda.

Within minutes of their departure she became severely agitated, angry, aggressive, lashing out verbally at any staff member who came near. Accusations were hurled about the cruelty being inflicted on her by an uncaring staff. She had been made a prisoner. Rhoda proceeded to rampage through the residence, banging on locked exit doors, barging into residents’ rooms, at one point trying to break a window to get out. The staff, attempting to calm her with assurances, was met with defiance:

“I am a registered nurse and I can tell you I would never treat one of my patients the way you are treating me. I want to get out of here and go home!”

In the midst of the standoff Rhoda spotted Lisa and me sitting side by side on the sofa. She could tell that we were a couple enjoying each other’s company. Rhoda stopped in her tracks, became silent, then headed in our direction. Expecting some kind of violent confrontation and worried about its effect on Lisa, I held my breath, trying to decide whether to leave or stay. We stayed. Rhoda approached and calmly asked our names and whether we were married. Then she crouched in front of Lisa and gazed up into her face. I was thunderstruck. Rhoda spoke first, and in the softest of tones:

“You know, Lisa, you are so lucky to be married to such a lovely man.”

I jumped in: “And I am so lucky to be married to such a lovely woman.”

“I know, I know,” said Rhoda, “I was just going to say that.”

She turned to Lisa again: “So, you understand why I just want to be with my own husband right now. I need to get out of here to be with him.”

Lisa’s response was to reach out and gently take Rhoda’s hands into her own. No further words were exchanged; none were needed. Lisa’s eyes shone with compassion, Rhoda’s with tears. I struggled not to let my own tears take over.

When Rhoda stood up again, she was calmer but still somewhat agitated and disoriented. To the rescue: another nurse assistant with a brilliant idea. Remembering that one of her fellow CNAs was well along in her pregnancy, she presented the colleague to Rhoda: “Rhoda, this is Laura, a patient who was just admitted with a troubled pregnancy. Would you mind taking care of her? She has been given her meds and we have her vital signs. She is in her ninth month, and we just need you to attend in case she needs help.”

Rhoda rose to the challenge, becoming again Rhoda, RN, giver of care.

Relatives of Alzheimer’s sufferers are often reminded that the human person is more than memory and mind. A comforting thought, perhaps, but at some level we don’t believe it—until we experience something like the Lisa-Rhoda-Laura interchange, when the human spirit that has shaped a life shines through. Beneath it all, finally, is that spark of love that may often sputter but is ultimately inextinguishable.

Published in the October 10, 2014 issue: View Contents

Joseph G. Murray is a retired professor living in Waterford, Connecticut. 

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