Casual Fridays are a series of real stories about people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. They are positive, slightly sad but enlightening. I want to show that you can still have intimate personal connections with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Additionally, I hope that readers can relate them to their own experiences. While some of these stories may be funny my intent is not to make fun of people with Alzheimer’s. I intend to change the way that people perceive the disease by showing some positive aspects to aid in accepting Alzheimer’s for what it is.
It has been incredibly important for me to understand my personal relationship with Alzheimer’s. My hope is that these stories can help those additionally affected by Alzheimer’s disease come to terms with how it effects their lives.
A colleague of mine worked in the eldercare industry for seventeen years. He worked in nursing homes and residential communities as a Nursing Assistant, an Activity Coordinator, and a Life Enrichment Director. He currently works with a non-profit organization that assists people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. He told me these stories and shares my views on how important they are. He asked me to share them with you. Please enjoy, I will post a new story every Friday.
-Carlos Barrios, Founder of Endear for Alzheimer’s
“The Task Master”
Ron was a man I knew in 2010 and 2011. He was tall and thin, probably six foot three, balding, with an infectious but all-too-rare smile, and wide-set, almost buggy eyes. Ron had spent most of his life in a small town in Eastern South Dakota. His son told me that among other jobs, Ron had spent years as a drug and alcohol counselor. He liked hunting, dogs, music, and spoke fondly of going out dancing with his wife in the one bar in his hometown. He especially loved the music of Hank Williams.
Ron’s form of dementia often took a paranoid turn. He would wander at night, accuse his roommate of stealing his clothes, and frequently speak about elaborate conspiracies that involved his wife cheating on him with multiple men, financial fleecing, and being kidnapped and tortured down by the river. I would try to re-direct Ron’s conversation when he obsessed on these topics. Once, he even accused his son Brian of being “the other man.” Since Ron was in his early sixties and relatively physically healthy, he had more energy than the average octogenarian at the Alzheimer’s community he lived in. This partially explained the wandering behavior. Since I was the Life Enrichment Director, I developed a plan with Ron: to put him to work. He had expressed the desire to help out, so I had him help with using a small motorless Bissell vacuum to clean the hallways. I also had him sweep the balconies on the residential floors. I knew he was a working class guy, so I went to the hardware store across the street and filled three coffee cans with different kinds of nails and screws. When Ron was upset or antsy, I would have him sit in the activity room and sort the screws and nails according to type, telling him that our maintenance man was really behind in his work and this would really help him out. One of Ron’s favorite projects was delivering the weekly shipment of medical supplies from the first floor to the two residential floors. We would go down the elevator together with a rolling cart and load up the boxes of undergarments, wipes, gloves, pill cups, lotion, etc. and take them to the appropriate rooms. Ron liked this project so much, he would approach me in the hall and say one word to me: “Boxes.” He loved the repetitive tasks. I can remember him handing me boxes of latex gloves one by one from a big cardboard box on the cart to be stacked in the supply closet. As soon as I stacked one, he had another one ready. It was almost as if Ron needed to be involved in a task in order to feel okay.
In giving him tasks to do during the day, Rob began to call me his boss, and actually thought he was my employee. It seemed to give him some comfort, so I went along with it. But no good deed goes unpunished. One afternoon, Ron approached me in the hall with a furrowed brow. He said, “I’ve been working for you now for weeks, so when do I get paid?” I told him that I would go downstairs and check on his pay. So, thinking fast, I went downstairs, and the office manager and I put together an official-looking receipt for a 40-hour work week. I put a notation of direct deposit and even put a red “RECEIVED” stamp across the top. I put the receipt in an envelope and took it up to Ron, explaining that the money was directly deposited into his bank account. He thanked me and made a remark that he just wanted to make sure it was safe and sound for his granddaughter’s school fund. I continued to make receipts for Ron for a couple of weeks until he stopped asking about pay. After a month or so, Ron became more interested in art. It started by my asking him to paint a birdhouse. He became very focused and used a variety of colors and a unique combination of dots, lines, and fractured words to paint this birdhouse. The result was strange, pointilistic, and exuberant. So I started finding other objects for Ron to paint: bird statues, large matted photographs of staff members and residents, an old beat up donated guitar, a chinese checker board, a toy piano, and even a rattan papasan chair frame I found on the corner. Ron painted them all, and all with his inimitable dots and lines and letters. Before long, I had a big collection of Ron’s art. Instead of wanting odd jobs in the morning, he would now ask me what he was going to paint. I cleared off a corner of the residential floor to create a gallery of Ron’s painted photographs and sculptures. It happened to be right next to his room, and he was very proud of the collection. For a banquet on the first floor, I brought Ron’s sculptures down to place on the tables, and had the staff and residents give him a round of applause for supplying the decorations for the tables. That was one of the happiest days for Ron I can remember.
In addition to unique art abilities filtered through his dementia, Ron also had a unique way of speaking and responding. Here are some of my interactions with Ron over the months:
Q: Do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? A: “Snoopy.”
“Engine power takes over.”
“I never know myself what I know.”
“I wanna be with that group that’s comin’ down from below.”
“How did we get to this point in life?”
“You give me more pills than food.”
Q: Who was Fred Astaire’s most famous dancing partner? A: “Moose.”
“Lots of Thanksgivings this year.”
“A lot more questions than answers.”
Q: How are you? A: “Well, still on all fours.”
“Mother Nature hit me bad this morning.”
Q: For Halloween, what would you like to dress up as? A: “A banker.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.”
Ron’s son was concerned about making sure Ron had enough resources to live for several years to come, so he decided to give notice and move Ron into a small foster home. I never saw him again. He lived there for about three months and had a bad fall in the middle of the night when he was wandering. He broke his hip and never really recovered, from what his son told me. After a few weeks, a cascade of health problems led to pneumonia and Ron died. I will always remember Ron for his eagerness to help, his prolific art abilities, and the gentleness he possessed at his core. Best employee I ever had.
Catch up on passed episodes of Casual Fridays. Here are some you may have missed:
“Elvis’ 65th Birthday”
“The Silver Key Club”
“Laughing and Singing”
“Our 3 Floors of Memory”
“Need to Get Back to Clay City, Iowa”
“Toilet Talk Time”
“Fleas and a Feather Float Together”
“Once a Politician, Always a Politician”
“Positive Post-It Notes”
“88 Keys of Past Memories”
“Fathers of Daughters”