I knock, not expecting an answer, then push open the door to her room.
Quiet, so as not to disturb, I step inside. It’s a clean, cozy room, reflective of the woman resting there. A radio plays softly in the background.
Maddie is lying beneath the covers in a single bed inclined to ease her breathing. Someone has placed a soft stuffed animal in her arms, a thoughtful gesture though I doubt she knows that it is there. At the foot of her bed is an empty chair – I pull it close so I can sit beside her.
Maddie’s walking her final mile, and I have come to say goodbye. She’s a unique woman with a mind of her own and a heart of gold. She has brought wonder and color to the Reminiscence Neighborhood at Sunrise Senior Living at Pinehurst where I go to live out my love.
This loving is something that I choose to do. As one of two Life Enrichment Managers at our community, I choose to make myself approachable and vulnerable. I choose to share in the journey each resident is on. It’s a passage made increasingly difficult as war is waged with a disease they didn’t ask for nor did they want – be it Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, Lewy Body or any number of progressive brain disorders.
I laugh with them and cry with them. I encourage them to keep on trying, to find purpose in their living. We fold linens together, and set the dining room tables for the next meal.
They proudly take me on tours of their “home.” I look at their photos and listen to their stories, often the same ones over and over again. And, when they can no longer share them, we sit together, hand-in-hand, and simply be.
I choose to make each day as pleasant and meaningful as possible. I choose knowing full well that the relationship we share will end all too soon. That kind of love comes at a cost. My heart is routinely broken and as painful as that is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That moment, when the end is near and it’s time to let go is never easy. Maddie’s eyes are closed and her breathing is shallow. She gives no indication that she is aware of my presence. A thoughtful care manager has gathered her graying hair into a comfortable pony tail on the back of her head, near the top, and has secured it with a pretty ribbon. She looks calm; for now her pain has been tamed.
I sit for a few minutes just looking at her face remembering this feisty frail woman who has been a part of our Reminiscence family for so many years. I reach across the blanket and tenderly wrap my fingers around hers.
Studies show that many of our elderly are touch deprived, either because they are alone and isolated where touch by others is curtailed, or because they lack the supple, wrinkle free skin our society requires to be one of the touchables. Research at the University of North Carolina shows that a simple hug can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and bring comfort and calm. For a brief moment, it can be a shield against the world.
Maddie’s hands are wrinkled, warm and soft. In their day, these hands were strong enough to hold the world, yet gentle enough to cradle a new born baby. With my thumb, I gently caress the back of her hand. My words are few as I let my touch express my love for her. Each time I try to pull away, she holds on tighter.
While we sit, I remember a day a year-and-a-half earlier. It was my first week in the Memory Care and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had years of experience under my belt in the Assisted Living, but not here. Maddie’s care manager had pushed her in her wheelchair to the long, wooden table where I sat with another resident, *Dona, adding color to a picture.
A box of crayons sat nearby. I pulled one out and held it in her line of vision, “What color is this, Maddie?”
“No, it’s not yellow. Guess again.”
She hesitated, searching for the right word. I looked at her care manager and asked, “Can she color?”
She paused then said, “No, I don’t think so.”
Maddie eyed the crayons and the book in front of Dona. “Give me,” she said. I gave her a crayon and a book. She made a colorful scribble or two then laid the crayon down. She tried but this was clearly not her forte.
Pushing the book aside, I picked up three crayons wondering as I did how I could engage her in meaningful activity. She brightened at the colorful array and on a whim I decided to play a game. Over and over I asked, “What color is this, Maddie?” She’d answer – usually wrong. This wasn’t working. My goal was for her to succeed, not fail.
I picked up another crayon and asked, “What color is this?”
“No, guess again,” I quietly encouraged.
I leaned toward her and whispered in her ear, “Purple, Maddie. The color is purple.”
“Purple!” she blurted, eyes twinkling.
“Yes! You’re right!” I squealed a little louder than I’d intended. She laughed outright and I grinned.
Over and over again I held up a crayon and asked, “What color is this, Maddie?” Only rarely did she get it right. When she did, I’d squeal with delight. When she didn’t, she’d hesitate then lean toward me so I could whisper the answer in her ear.
It was nearing dinner time and we needed to finish our game. I laid the crayons down. “Maddie, look at me.” Her eyes met mine and held. Pointing to myself and then to her I said with sincerity, “You make me happy!”
“Yes, you do!”
“Yes, Maddie, very happy.”
She measured me with her eyes, a gentle smile on her face, and then she spoke, “You make me yellow!” It was the best compliment I’d received in a very long time.
It’s time for me to go. For a short time today, I was her shield against the world. Maddie has touched my life in so many ways. Concerned that I am wearying her, I let go of her hand.
I am surprised when she takes hold of my fingers, this time holding them in her hand. She begins to rub the back of my hand with her thumb. She cannot speak, but she is expressing her love for me.
Goodbye. I love you, Maddie.
You make me yellow.
Note: Maddie isn’t her real name.