My new client, Ada*, was in the earliest stages of a degenerative illness which affected her short term memory and her ability to make decisions. She moved just fine and had no physical symptoms other than what was normal for a woman of her age. I met Ada as she was walking down the hallway and introduced myself. I suggested we go into her room, and she squinted briefly — “Where is that?” — but relaxed when I showed her a doorway with her picture posted next to it.
We walked into the room, and she wondered aloud where I wanted her to be for the massage. I pointed to the closest of two beds. Ada shook her head and said, “Oh honey. That’s not my bed. I’m not going to get into someone else’s bed . . . unless Brad Pitt is in there.”
We laughed together as I helped her to her actual bed, apologizing for the lack of Brad Pitt contained within. I thought this was going to be fun — like my other client who had to give up cigarettes, booze and sex.
The thing about short term memory loss, though, is that each thought that comes across the mind has to be dealt with, immediately. Shutting off the mind for deep relaxation requires concentration and focus. At her current stage in the illness, she had neither of these things. A devilish grin over her joke, quickly turned to skittish anxiety when she wondered how long she would be staying “in here.” Then that morphed into tear-streaked sadness at her lack of family and friends who could take her in. In short, she was all over the place, and I couldn’t redirect her for more than a few seconds at a time.
I left her in the care of one of the life enrichment staff — a gentle, patient woman who walked her down the hall towards a resident social hour. Myself, I left feeling defeated. I used to think it was my gift to be able to adapt to people as they are, to sit in their space and bring quiet to them. I couldn’t do it with her. I fell for the easy, funny moment and forgot to look just underneath at all of her humanity.
*–name and identifying details have been changed