Archive - Sep 11, 2013


The Unit

Played at the Villa in Crookston today. I usually do double duty there, playing once for the residents in the general area of the nursing home and another session, usually quite a bit shorter, for the people in the Alzheimer's unit, affectionately referred to as "The Unit." 

Today, in a reversal of the usual routine, I played in The Unit first. It was just after lunch. I thought people might be napping, but no, everybody was lined up and ready to go. I greeted them all and then off we went. For some reason, it clicked and we had loads of fun. They sang the hymns. People who don't otherwise talk are able to remember the hymns. We all got the giggles at the end. 

"Emotional contagion" is the phenomenon whereby one person's mood transmits to the next, and to the next, and so on. Alzheimer's sufferers are completely susceptible. Today, two ladies took the lead, made wise-cracks and jumped into the singing. We bounced around and soon the others joined in. A lady arrived in a wheelchair fussing over her baby doll, which she wrapped in a blanket. Eventually, she sang like almost everybody else. 

The time went quickly. I was late for the other performance. So, I went around to say goodbye. Several were back asleep, but I awoke them and said thank you for coming. Two of my favorites were nuns, both who were sound asleep in their chairs at the beginning. Sister Caroline was unresponsive when I greeted her when I came; when I left, she was giggling. The second nun, when I awakened her to say goodbye, awoke with a start and swung into a effusive ministerial blessing of me. It was such a surprise that I jumped back when she began. I thought she was out of it. Nope. 

As I got ready to leave the room, one of the ring leaders pointed to a younger man who has been there for several years. He had glowered over me as I played, which is usual and doesn't bother me unless he starts hitting the keys. But now, he was really upset. He glared at me with a true Hitlerian intensity, chin jutted out. It was almost scary. 

"You're getting all the attention," the peppy woman explained, as I didn't know what was going on to cause him to view me with such pure hatred. She knew, however. So, I tried to sneak out the door only to have to wait until the code was punched in to the lock. 

I then went to the regular part of the nursing home, for lack of a better term. Agnes has been there for years. She recently turned 100. She always has an old-time story ready for me. 

"Do you still have twine?" she asked. I said yes, knowing that she did not have dementia and the story was indeed going somewhere, as they have for the past 10 years. 

"When we were young and somebody was sent to prison in Stillwater, we would say 'they went to Stillwater to spin twine.'" I guess that is what they did at the prison back then. Today, they stamp license plates. 

She told how the twine arrived, eight large spools in a burlap sack, the bundle held together by some especially thick twine. 

Another lady told how she cultivated with horses as a girl. It went so slow that when she finished a field, her father told her to start back up again back at the beginning. 

"We didn't just wave at each other back then when we met on the road going to town," she said. "We stopped and talked to every car!" 

I asked the group if they noticed anything different about me. Last week in Twin Valley in response to the question, a woman popped up and said, "Your voice sounds better!" Which is true. What was different about me was I had my tonsils out. And my voice is clearer.

Today, when I asked the same question, the woman who cultivated with horses as a girl snapped, "You're wearing shorts!" 

True enough. 

"So we can see your knobby knees!" she added. 

She set herself up good because, although she was dressed in fancy dress, when she sat it came a little above her knees--and she had forgetten to roll her nylon stockings up over her knees, so if anybody had prominent knobby knees, it was her! 

"Well, we can see your knobby knees, too!" I said right back. She was a good sport, as they always are in the home, and threw her hem over her knees with disgust. Nursing home residents love to banter and no longer get embarrassed. You can push it a bit. If it doesn't work, they forgive and forget on the spot as a matter of maturity, not dementia.

"I am too old to be offended," Richard Nixon shrugged during a trip to Russia in the last year of his life when Russian President Boris Yeltsin refused to see him. 

The banter in a nursing home you can't get by with out in society. It is complete fun. And I came home utterly drained. Two hours of playing and singing feels like running four miles. I plopped in the recliner and slept for two hours. 

Now that I am awake, I am still running through the time in the Alzheimer's unit in my head. There is something special about Alzheimer's units. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more gratifying than to break through the fog and see some smiles. With the Alzheimer's patients, you get back what you put in and more. They respond to energy. They respond to mischief. They respond when people ham it up. Their garbled thanks at the end sometimes takes the form of poetry. 

None of them were a chocolate chip cookie today, either.