‘Reminiscing about Old Age’ – Vignettes from a Care Home

FullSizeRender copy 17Oftentimes, when writing about my mother, or working alongside those experiencing dementia, I can easily capture moments of frustrations, blessings and angst. But there is another side to the disease, a softer, funnier side that one can appreciate only after hours spent in a care hour, around residents who are marshaling forth a life others cannot comprehend.

Jack and Emma are often found sitting in the white wicker parlor, waiting for the afternoon sun to brighten their day. They chat about residents who walk by. They discuss the weather. Their conversations are at best high-level to the average observer. One day, I happen upon them, as I entered through the secure doors. I always stop and say, “Hello,” as those two friendly open faces help prepare me for whatever situation/disposition I might find my mother in.

“What are you two talking about today,” I asked.

“Oh, we were just reminiscing,” Emma said.

Reminiscing was allowed, encouraged even lifted up as a victory for some shred of a memory that remained. My mother cannot, does not reminsence. Its as if her memory has been wiped clean, though she still knows people who are in her life frequently, or those that have been around since the beginning.

“Reminiscing about what,” I asked Emma.

Jack interjected, “Well, about old age.”

Singing is often a focal point, a way into a mind that is road blocked, access cut off to lengthy sentences or meaningful conversations.

A resident, Frank, was walking around with his brother, Tim. When Tim encountered Helen, another resident known for her love of Etta James, the two of them began a duet with “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.”

They sang two stanzas then Helen attempted to walk away. Tim wouldn’t allow this and said, “Not until we finish.”

He stood in her path, and the two of them finished with a flourish. Then Helen said, wisely, to Tim. “Now pay me.”

Confusion about surroundings is not uncommon, even if familiar visitors are around, or more so, especially if those visitors are around.

The other day, when visiting Mom, she muttered over and over, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

She had been tired, and in true martial law fashion, I had made her get up out of the chair and walk, to find another space where we could visit. We finally made it to standing then walking. But each room she entered was one more she exited. Mom was fidgety and could not settle into any one space or room, as if she was Goldilocks looking for the perfect bed, which she probably was.

“I don’t know,” she finally sighed.

“Mom, what don’t you know?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know what I don’t know.” Then she squeezed my hand. We laughed out loud together.

She knew that she didn’t know what she didn’t know.

An unknown author once wrote, “The tragedy of men is that they forget.” But Jim knows exactly who he is.

I call him Big Jim. He is often seen in the same sunny spot of the corridors. Jim is large man and once played on the last football team that Xavier University fielded before terminating their program. Jim wears XU-related clothing everyday. Now, Jim has a bevy of names that must include everything from baptismal to confirmation to nicknames. If you get him started, he will tell you….”

“James Joseph Edward Michael Timothy Bailey,” Jim says. Soon, he’ll break into, “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey? Won’t you please come home?”

Before long, everyone in the vicinity is singing and carrying that tune with the rest of the day, except me. Instead, I wind up hearing, “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” stuck in my brain, trying to recall how to spell Jingleheimer.

Many still posses the ability to look at themselves and those around, and find commonality.

One afternoon, I entered my mother’s kitchen area. Most of the women were finishing lunch or had already completed lunch and were waiting to be taken to the restroom, or helped up from the table.

The room, while sunny, took on a strange blue hue. Then, I noticed that all the women were wearing teal, with the lone exception of my mother. I have noted this before. One of the caregivers told me, some days, she picks a color to help her decide how to dress the women that day.

I pointed out to the women, “Look, you’re all wearing some shade of teal,”

Of course, my mother jumped in and said, “What, you want me to kneel?”

“No, teal. You are all wearing teal.”

The women swung their head around at each other, astounded by the color and the matching.

One resident piped up and said, “Well, at least we have that in common.”

And finally, a few more from Mom:

Sometimes, my mother makes sense.

When a caregiver asked Mom to rise up and follow her to the bathroom, my mother looked up and said, “Well, anything could go wrong around here.”

During the past weeks of abundant sunshine, I made the extra effort to visit Mom frequently so she too could catch and hold on to the last rays of summer. It is a sadness that sets in for me, to watch the sun fade from her views in the winter months.

After much cajoling, I escorted Mom outside for a stroll. We finally exited the shady area and I stood still in the sun. My mother, meanwhile, was focused on a dead leaf she could not move from her path with her shoe.

“Mom, look up at the sun.”


“The sun, look up.”

“Where is your son, where is he?”

“I’m not talking about that son. But anyhow, he’s in Oregon.”

“What the heck is he doing there?”

Moments that make me laugh. Moments that take my breath away.

As we sat in the courtyard one day, another resident and her brother passed us by.

“Hi, Jean,” the brother said.

“Hi,” Mom replied, her friendliest tone not used around me, not ever.

“Who is that pretty girl you’re there with,” he asked.

“That’s my d-d-daughter.”

We all clapped.

Moments that I will long remember. Mom, in her purple sweater with a purple shirt underneath, and nails that I painted purple, just to get her back for always dressing me in yellow when I was a toddler, applauding her memory.

Moments colored with laughs.

When I painted Mom’s nails with a new color, I was reminded of the poem, When I grow old, I shall wear purple and the lines: “I shall go out in my slippers in the rain. And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens, And learn to spit.”

When I grow old, I too shall wear purple, like I did as a teen, in my twenties and thirties and now. I shall sit in my writing room, painted a shade of purple called Soulmate, and I will laugh about my memory and hopefully remember to laugh.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Mother of course, needs no defending. She is perfectly capable of doing so herself.


  1. Annette, When your mother said she didn’t know what she didn’t know, that was actually quite wise! Zen masters proclaim this: I am thinking of ZM Seung Sahn, a (South) Korean one who came to the U.S. and began a large group. Ahhh. Great stories you are preserving❤ Phebe


    • Thanks Phebe. I do believe in all the wisdom she had imparted these years, with her simple comments or simple actions. Your comments inspired a poem this morning for me, as I am back at the hospital, checking in, feeling as if there is another change coming for her, just one I cannot yet discern.

      Golden Acres

      In her aged bones
      she doesn’t know
      what she should hope for
      she only knows
      how to form the word
      and repeat

      as if a cricket
      singing the same song
      through the thick of thickets
      expects the same refrain
      in reply.

      Should she desire
      to amble outside
      on concrete paths
      which are fields in her mind
      fields she once populated
      with children and pails and
      rakes and sleds
      fields she once imbued
      with her tender voice
      calling us home
      time to come home.


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