It takes a full hour to feed Beth lunch. She chews slowly (just like my acupuncturist tells me I should—but who, other than a 96-year-old, has time?) and she’s easily distracted by the lunchtime bustle in the memory care unit.
When I was here last month, Beth could feed herself. Sure, sometimes she ate toast with a fork, and more often scrambled eggs with her hands, but she could get through a full plate of food in one sitting.
I can barely wake her for a visit today. She murmurs through her sleep, but minutes pass before she opens her eyes. Beth chatters incessantly during our visits, and I have no idea what she says—it’s more babble than actual words. Yet her emotion is clear; I can always tell when I’m supposed to laugh (her eyebrows shoot up and she looks at me with an expectant smile) or answer a question (she cocks her head and waits). Once I’ve given the appropriate response she resumes her stream of words.
It’s been years since Beth could share much of a reality with the people around her. She might have been crotchety or catty, morose or mundane, but with advanced dementia she is simply delightful. She watches the world, giggling as she gives me a running commentary on what’s happening in this memory care dining room.
More than five million Americans like Beth live with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, 1.5 million Americans live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, a number which is expected to rise dramatically as the elderly population in our country doubles over the next 25 years.
Beth lacks language to read or follow a TV program or sing a song. Her identity now comes from the plastic baby doll she’s carried for years. She’s stopped changing its diaper, she doesn’t try to feed it anymore, but cradling this doll in her lap still soothes her. She gazes into its face and coos—a universal language. What a strange mirror aging makes with childhood: Beth began as a little girl, and will end as an old woman, cuddling a doll. Although Beth forgets to feed her doll now, she usually remembers how to feed herself. She uses her hands, just as she did in a highchair 90 years ago. Her fingers are sticky with berry juice, her shirt is smeared with pancake. After 90 years, Beth is wearing a diaper again.
Beth’s end-of-life, or long dying, is messy. She doesn’t get visits from loved ones, who don’t know how to communicate with her babble. Beth’s nursing home is clean and friendly, but it’s not home. No one here knows who she romanced or how she liked her coffee. No one’s seen her parade her favorite party dress or watched her open a birthday present or looked to her for advice.
But sometimes we hear her coo at this baby doll. Sometimes we see her smile when she’s babbling a joke. The divine presence of life within us pushes us to learn, grow, adapt at every age. Mysterious wisdom is present in Beth’s babble as she nears death, just as it was present 90 years ago in her toddler babbling. We can trust that the mysterious wisdom of life is present in our own bewilderment. With that trust, may we find the hope to stay present to Beth, as well. With that trust, may we find the courage stay present to our return to babble.