June 14, 2001 - December, 2001
The Quiet Community
Roland L. Warren

Since as a relatively healthy person I have occasion to live in a specialized assisted living home for elderly residents, I am in a special position to assess the social ambience and also to describe some of the interesting characters circulating around the halls and lounges and dining rooms of this facility.

First, a brief description of the ambience:

This is an assisted living facility specializing in care of patients with Alzheimer's disease. Its physical appointments are simply sumptuous. There are lots of lounges, easy chairs, divans, and the like. The furniture is in good taste, the spaces are commodious, and the interior decoration is excellent, in good taste.

There are four sections like ours, each with about 16 residents. For each two sections there is separate registered nurse on hand 24hours a day - hence, three shifts. Residents receive their prescribed medications with the utmost care and solicitude. In general, the nurse's aids who take care of the residents as needed, for toileting, baths, bedding, getting into chairs and other activities, are unbelievably patient, respectful, kind, and caring. They do a lot of hugging, to everyone on occasion, but most often to the most ill and needful.

Generally, residents, when they are not in bed, spend the day either at meals in the dining room, or in one of the lounges sitting in a circle on wheel chairs, individual comfortable easy chairs, or divans, as suits their needs. They often watch television or simply sit and in many cases just doze. There are activities in the lounge, where they all gather after meals, such as bouncing a large ball back and forth, or doing simple exercises, etc. In addition, special entertainers are brought in every week or so for some kind of presentation. There are also some minimal hobby activities, for most of the residents cannot manage anything too demanding.

Some Vignettes of Residents

Let us begin with Henry. He is probably 75 years old, somewhat stooped though generally well built. But, he is on another planet. He might stand for a half hour looking at a corner in the ceiling, or look down at the floor for an equal time and then gradually scoop up a small piece of lint. After his own slow fashion, he sometimes gets to moving chairs around. He does not go far with them, for each chair takes him about a half hour to move a few feet - not because he is struggling physically, but because each motion takes considerable time and contemplation. Also, I have seen him for minutes at a time slowly pulling on the top board of a counter as though to take it off. No problem, for they are all fastened securely. Just the other day while we were eating breakfast, Henry left his breakfast (he does once or twice every meal, to wander until he is guided back.) Over our way, he slowly approached a double easy chair and painstakingly removed all four large cushions, one by one, carefully placing each one on the floor along the wall, some distance away. Then he went to the table where Miriam and Alice and Lilly eat and moved some of the chairs away from that table. Gradually, he walked off. At that moment, a nurse's aid came along and I nodded at Henry's retreating figure and mentioned that he was moving the furniture around again. Was she consternated? Her response was, "Yes, Henry is very busy this morning."

But in the lounge, where most residents of our section (about 16 of them) are assembled during the day, just resting there in wheel chairs or in the sumptuous lounge chairs and divans, sitting in a circle, they had some dance music on the hi-fi. One of the nurse's aids sought him out and he got up and danced with her quite convincingly, as his body told him just what to do. He then wandered away onto another planet.

Mildred is a tall woman with a George Washington hairdo, and is a smiling, touchy-touchy kind of person. She sits with others at a table for six, over which she "presides." She is most helpful to her table partners, helping them arrange their plates, or take the proper knife or fork, or relay their wishes to the nurse's aids who serve the table. She also takes it upon herself to give orders to other residents, telling them to be quiet, or to sit down, or to wait to be served instead of asking for service. In many other ways she helps other residents, taking their arm to help them to the lounge, helping them get seated, or whatever. She has a cheerful nod and smile for everyone, and seems hurt if everyone does not look at her and return the greeting, no matter how far away. But-underneath that smiling countenance is a dragon. Cross her and she becomes vicious, apparently quite oblivious to her usual apparent attitude of kind understanding of her fellow residents with their problems. The other night at table, when the woman opposite her did not do just what she wanted, she threw the contents of a glass of milk at her. In short: a benevolent despot!

Now for Alice. She is a middle-sized, extremely thin woman, well into her final years. She has a great deal of quiet dignity and shows signs of well-to-do upbringing. She walks around in a complete daze, most of the time talking in a droning voice with words that are often recognizable but seldom with any fathomable meaning. On two occasions for whatever reason she took her pants down baring herself. It did not appear to be exhibitionism, but simply something which at the moment she felt the urge to do. Nurse's aids are usually not far away, and on these occasions they simply said quietly that she shouldn't do that and then pulled her pants up and hugged her and led her along the hall. Alice mostly talks to voices she hears inside, but she often accompanies people as well. Without any indication of malice she kept bothering an old woman in a wheel chair one day to an extent that could well be termed harassment. Another time I was walking along the hall and she followed me and said brightly, "Where are we going?" She has to have special help from a nurse's aid while eating, and she is likely to want to get up and walk away five or six times while they are trying to feed her. Having eaten, she often simply wanders around, mostly talking to her voices, occasionally going over to the windows and spending ten minutes or so trying to tuck one of the beautiful window drapes in between the slats of the Venetian blind. Her husband comes to visit her nearly every day, and what strikes me about him is that he always looks so troubled and impatient as he leads her around when they walk, and when he finally leaves he says Goodbye more with worry than with any tenderness. But, Reader, before you judge, put yourself in that man's position and think what life would be like.

Before introducing other colorful characters, I want to describe some of the social ambience among these residents. I might say that out of 30 or so (there are also about 15 residents in the neighboring section, and we share the lounge, but not the dining rooms) there are only perhaps five at the most to whom I can say Good Morning or any such appropriate greeting and expect a response. The others simply ignore such a greeting. However, if you stop them, or if they find themselves "lost" and need help getting to where they want to go, some of them may answer. My trouble conversing with any who talk to me is that sometimes what they say simply does not make sense to me, or they speak so low that I can't follow them.

By and large, the residents mainly ignore each other, passing each other in the ornate corridors like ships in the night The strange thing is that I often see some of these people with whom I can't converse carrying on a viable conversation with each other. Again, these conversations are so quiet I have no idea what they consist of, or whether they make sense to either or both parties.

Given all of this, there is a sort of fellowship in the lounge where most of them spend the day as already mentioned. They simply sit there and doze or just jell, participating (perhaps half of them) in bounce-the-ball, or singing songs, or mild exercises, etc. Often the hi-fi or television is on, but most of them ignore the television and either doze or just sit there.

Despite all the above, there is a kind of quiet community here. The residents (you never hear the word "patients") are accustomed to each other, and don't have to talk, even, to be aware of the others' presence. They also seem to behave as though they realize that every resident is somehow sick and must be either ignored or dealt with patiently and quietly. I am confident that although once in a while there is someone sitting alone in the lounge, most of them in the long run would feel quite lonely without the others. Also, there seem to be certain tacit norms, the most apparent of which is that of ignoring any special altercation which may occur, or if someone spills a glass of juice, etc. There are only perhaps a handful out of the 30 who would try to be helpful in such a case; but mostly they seem to realize that the best thing they can do is ignore any difficulty that some other may be causing, and leave it up to the nurse's aids to help.

I should add something of my own reaction to all this. Strangely, I find it enjoyable to sit in the lounge with these other residents, half of whom are usually asleep and the other half with eyes open but not talking. I have just come to realize this recently. One time when Peg was taking a nap, I went out to the lounge myself, just to be there with them. Part of it may be that I get tired of staying in our rooms, although they are very comfortable and I am happy there. I think the other part of it is that after several months, now, I am aware of these others not just as more or less anonymous residents, but rather as individuals, with their own idiosyncrasies which I have come to know.

More Vignettes

When Lilly first came here, she greeted me with "Hello, Aaron." At first, I simply replied "Hello," but soon I told her that my name was not Aaron, it was Roland. When she continued to greet me as Aaron, I told her that if she called me Aaron I would call her Florence. This went on for a couple of days, and when again she said "Hello, Aaron," I simply responded "Hello." She then said, "Aaron, where is Gertrude?" My wife and I were at our special table, and Lilly had been going past. I did not want to get into the Roland business again, so I mumbled some confusing syllables in answer to her question about Gertrude's whereabouts. It seemed to satisfy her, but then she looked across our table at my wife and asked, "So, who is that?" I decided that my attempt at going along with her fantasy was a big mistake, and to go back to the Roland thing again. Lilly is sort of a Jewish mother in appearance and demeanor. She is quiet, calm, self-composed. But she has illusions, one of the chief ones being her desire to "be a lady" and to go visit the Prince of Jerusalem. She often happily informs others: "I am sitting in the Princess chair." Although quiet and self-assured, she apparently got herself so unpopular in the other dining hall where she eats that the nurse's aids took her out of there and now have her eat separately. She always seems quite calm and self-possessed, but is somewhat demanding. The other day in the lounge where residents were gathered before breakfast, she kept pestering the duty nurse who was totally occupied selecting the individual medications and administering them to different patients. "May I have some orange juice, please," she repeated in a calm but rather loud and demanding voice, to which the nurse would respond "In a little while, Lilly." But two minutes later came the same demand, and once more after that. The reaction of the other residents, who knew they all would soon get their orange juice with breakfast, was as indicated above, to totally ignore the interchange.

I will describe further the situation of Lilly being relegated to a separate table for eating, but before I do, let me introduce the next protagonist - Miriam


When talking with my wife, I refer to Miriam as "Old Steely Throat." She has a voice that is so loud and metallic that for several days after she arrived here I was convinced she had an artificial larynx. You can hear her as she comes down the hall to her special table. Her voice is extremely loud and extremely raspy and extremely unpleasant. During the whole time she is eating, she sometimes responds loudly to whoever is feeding her, but also peppers the dining hour with, "Please help me; I don't know what to do," or "I want to go home." Sometimes she just spouts, "aaaah! aaaah!" She is of course sick, but that does not prevent her manner from being gratingly repulsive, to the extent that I often wonder how the nurse's aid who has responsibility for feeding her this time can keep her cool and be gentle and patient and respectful. But, they manage. This poor woman is going through hell here on earth, her life filled with suspicion, angry self-centeredness, and anxiety. We feel so sorry for her.

Now, picture the tableau when Miriam and Alice and Lilly sit at the same table at meals, with one of the nurse's aids charged with feeding Miriam and Alice. Lilly has the benefit of a specially hired day nurse, although to me it does not seem that she needs one. At any rate, that day nurse feeds Lilly, while the belabored nurse's aid seeks to feed the other two, cutting their food, reaching it to their mouth, etc. Meantime, Miriam is loudly proclaiming her song of woe and Alice quietly gets up and walks slowly away several times during the meal, only to be brought back by the harried nurse's aid, while Miriam calls, "Where are you? Please help me; I don't know what to do. Aaaah! Aaaah!"

I don't know how the nurse's aids survive all of this and keep coming back. They take turns at it, contrary to my impression that they must be assigned to this duty as a special punishment for some misdeed. I asked one of them who decided which one would serve at that table each time, and she said there was no system, it was just as the spirit moved someone to do it this time. So, they in effect do it voluntarily, although I suspect that there must be a certain tacit set of norms which assumes that each of them will do her share. One night at supper Lilly did not have her special nurse, and the duty nurse did the honors at the table where the three sat. Miriam had been on her very good behavior the last day or two, speaking relatively softly and not acting so desperate. The nurse chiefly fed Alice while the other two more or less took care of themselves. Midway into the meal, though, Alice got up once more and drifted away, and while the nurse pursued her, Miriam went to a nearby toilet enclosure, and Lilly got up and started to go into the lounge. It took some time for the nurse to get them all together again and have them eat their supper. Soon after, the nurse had to go answer the telephone, which left Lilly and Alice and Miriam alone at the table.

They appeared to engage in a meaningful conversation. What did they talk about, and how did the conversation go? Reader, we shall never know. They sit some fifty or sixty feet from our table, and even though I turned up the volume on my hearing aid, I could not get the drift. After a while, though, Alice got up once more and drifted to our table, where she spoke to me for a minute or so while I tried hard to penetrate what it was she was saying. Soon, the nurse came back and led Alice away to her room for the night.

I should add that since all of the above, Miriam's behavior has improved dramatically. I can hardly believe the difference. Gone is the loud, raspy shouting, gone are the constant calls "Please help me, I don't know what to do!" and "Let me out of here, I want to go home!" She is as quiet as any of the others, and for some reason she has calmed down and seems to be almost enjoying life. I mentioned this to one of the duty nurses, and asked whether, as I suspected, they had somehow changed Miriam's medication, and she responded that they had. "Well," I said, "it's really amazing. She is so calm now, and her anxiety level has gone way down." The nurse rolled her eyes skyward.. "So has ours!" she said.

I am describing only the most colorful characters here. This is a selection from about thirty individuals, most of whom are rather quiet, many needing assistance in walking (either a nurse's aid's arm or a "walker," and many being in wheel chairs. They go peacefully about the daily routine of being helped to get up and dressed, then to the lounge, then to the dining room for breakfast, again to the lounge, then to the dining room for the noon meal (the big one), then the lounge again, then supper, then mostly to a different lounge to watch television until bedtime.

Judy is another colorful character. When I first entered the back delivery entrance when we were moving in our furniture, she came up smiling like an old friend and said, "I know you." I wondered if somewhere we had met before, but I guess we had not. She was quite an extrovert and acted like a welcoming committee. Later, as days went on, she would be seen acting as happy as could be, often singing, sometimes dancing, and now and again accosting people with good will and largely unintelligible language. She acted as though she felt she was in heaven. The down side was that she could come up to you and follow you around or stand at your table and bother you with her ebullience while you were trying to eat. One of the charge nurses told us that Judy was highly psychotic and could be vicious, and that she had scratched and bitten this nurse on occasion. After a few weeks, we noticed some ambulance people wheeling in a gurney and when they came out they had Judy, all strapped down but smiling and happily talking a blue streak. For several weeks, there was no Judy. Then, suddenly, she was back. But what a change! No more delirious singing, only a hint of the dancing, but apparently quietly peaceful and moderately contented. She had lost her happy ebullience. This may seem sad, but I feel to the contrary, it brought her back to normalcy - whatever they did where she went. I assume in was a psychiatric hospital, and that they found the "right" medication for her.

The Walkers

Now, some descriptions of the walkers - that is, residents who spend a good part of each day walking back and forth through the corridors and lounges and dining spaces. I have already described a few of them. Henry's sitting up and walking during his meals is only part of his daily perambulations! He moves slowly, deliberately, but on and on he goes. Alice, in addition to her walks from the dining table, spends a good deal of time walking around as though on an important errand, talking away in her droning voice.

There are still other walkers. One is the diminutive Florence. She is only about four foot ten inches tall, and looks like a miniature New England grandmother, or great-grandmother. She is as cute as she can be. Being so small, she has difficulty sitting down at the dining room table to eat, even though they provide her with a cushion.; They usually end up feeding her at the table while she stands at her place. While standing, her head is only an inch or two higher than those who are seated. But as soon as the one feeding her turns her head, she goes wandering off, looking somewhat prepossessed but quite happily contented, only to be led gently back, with no resistance on her part, to repeat the process. One morning an aid followed her into the lounge and sat down with Florence's breakfast and fed the standing Florence. Even that did not last, for Florence soon went wandering off again.

I had Luke pinned as a fishing boat captain, having been told that there was a captain in the Arbors; having seen the man. I could easily see him as a lobster fisherman or as the skipper of a fishing boat. Come to find out, I wasn't far from wrong, for he told me that his job had been supplying parts to repair small ships, which came in handy for the US during WWII. The way he walked, though, had made me think he was used to being on shipboard. Anyway, he is perhaps the most persistent walker, spending most of the day walking energetically from the far lounge in the neighboring section, through the various corridors and dining spaces and smaller lounges to the large lounge in our section. Today it was interesting that as he passed by Alice, she took up with him, trailing him perhaps ten feet behind, meanwhile talking a blue streak in her droning voice.

Lawrence is another occasional walker. He was here when we arrived, and I noticed him at mealtimes, particularly at breakfast, walking along the corridor in sight of our table from one dining room to the other. He is a tall man, with excellent posture, pleasant to look at, and carries his clothes well. I thought at first that he was part of the administration; he certainly had an air of authority about him. No, he is a resident. I figured he might be nice to chat with once in a while, but my repeated attempts to get him to say Hello failed, and I still have not exchanged words with him. One of his characteristics, aside from his authoritative manner of walking, is the way he often sits down in the lounge. There are two large sofas there among the other furniture pieces. They can accommodate three persons with ease, or four, if carefully distributed. On a number of occasions he has come up to one of these sofas occupied by three women. He decides where he wants to sit, and simply plumps down between two of the women. As they see him coming down, the one on the end squeezes over as much as possible, as well as the one in the middle seat. That leaves about two-thirds of the space he takes up, and after he plumps down, his new sofa neighbors squeeze away some more, taking up the final third of what he requires. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) they do not protest. He makes himself comfortable, relaxes, and settles back contented. He may or may not talk to one of them on some theme or other. His attitude, I guess, is laissez magest'e!

His attitude, I guess, is laissez majest'e!

Larry's wife comes to visit him occasionally; She doesn't look terribly vigorous, but also shows a certain demeanor or way of carrying herself that I think of her as "a Vassar girl." She sometimes takes him out to dinner, and on a few occasions they have returned while I have been playing the piano in the reception lounge. She always greets me in a friendly manner, and he gives only a cursory look in my direction. The other night though (now some seven months since we have been being here) they came in and she smiled at me as they walked by, and he said Hello in a straightforward manner. They walked along a few steps toward the lounge's door into the main structure, and he came back and said something which I could not hear well enough to understand. He looked back at where his wife had gone on, as though to call her back to convey something, but then he gave up and went to follow her out. Would that I could have fathomed what he had been trying so hard to say. Next morning I was especially alert to give him a cordial Hello, but his response was once again minimal.

There is a woman who has been around for some time, and for some reason she (I'll call her Maude) and Larry seem moderately to pal around together. They often sit together in the lounge when there are two adjacent seats available, and sometimes walk down the corridor together. Once in a great while, she has her arm in his, but not often. With reference to Maude, I was telling my daughter that there are certain residents here who seem to enjoy a special delegation to perform some strange task. In her case, it is to adjust the Venetian blinds at the fourfold window (two upper, two lower) at our dining table. I often see her making these adjustments when I return into the main structure from the entrance hall piano. The adjustment consists of assuring that each of the four blinds is adjusted differently, some up, some down, some with the blinds straight, some slanting. She then finishes her task by taking one of the blind pulls (sometimes two) and sliding its cord sideways into the blind slats. That done, she walks away apparently feeling that her mission has been accomplished and she can be content until the time comes for her to do it the next evening, since someone, usually Yours Truly, has tampered with her work by setting them all once again in symmetrical order..

The Eagles

Now an interesting digression. We have a bald eagle's nest close at hand, which has caused unbelievable disruption in the plans for traffic in Southern New Hampshire. The nest is in the trees where I customarily walk to go down to the Heritage Trail along the Merrimack River. Where I enter the woods, there are two faint trails, one to the left and one to the right, each forming a semicircle which ends in their convergence at Heritage Trail. These two trails are labeled as Eagle Park, and they contain informative sign boards describing bald eagles and their nesting habits.

I was somewhat dismayed when on the first of December there were signs that Eagle Park was not to be entered between December 1 and April 1, explaining that it was a protected bald eagle nesting habitat during those months. I had to find another less convenient trail giving access to Heritage Trail, and even that main trail was blocked off when it approached the Eagle Park area.

Meantime, the huge amount of snow this past winter (2000 to 2001) prevented ready access to any trail at all, being some two feet deep where it was not drifted to greater depth. Even when April 1 came around, I still couldn't make use of the Eagle Park trails because of the snow, and similarly with the alternate access trail I had found.

Well into April, all these trails became available, though muddy in spots.

Meantime, I was reading in the newspaper about the problem with a major highway extension which is planned to cross the river in the neighborhood of the eagle's nest.. The eagles are a protected species. The rules say that there can be no highway or other troublesome intrusion within 660 feet of the eagle's nest. As a result, a multimillion dollar express highway extension is being delayed until a suitable plan and agreement can be reached which does not intrude on the eagles' habitat. There is little doubt that the change in plans will raise the already high costs of this new highway.

I find it somewhat unusual and very reassuring that the extensive negotiation and debate between the highway and environmental authorities is taking place in a highly rational, non-ideological process without the usual high intensity emotionalism which such a conflict in values often brings. They are working calmly on a solution which may not be perfect but which both sides of this dispute can eventually accept. Chalk up one for rational public debate and constructive negotiation.

The latest news as of June 4, 2001 is that with the currently proposed change of highway route plans, the Faith Christian Center will have to be taken by eminent domain, and destroyed. But the pastor takes a Stoic (or Christian?) point of view, saying, "God's in charge of those eagles, and if he wants to move us, he can do it." Making it easier for the pastor's judgment is her assurance that the church anticipates a sizeable monetary settlement that would help it expand at a new location.

In any case, this finally occasioned an editorial in the Manchester Union Leader (pretty far right) viewing with some alarm that a government agency has the power to determine that a church is going to have to be torn down and rebuilt just to accommodate a couple of nesting eagles, adding that, of course, the monetary settlement will be at the taxpayers' expense.

Some Recent Developments

Alice And Lilly and Miriam have been reincorporated into their earlier dining hall, where presumably the nurse's aids can now accommodate them as well as the other diners.

Alice recently got into a confrontation with one of the other residents, whom I shall call Olga. In her customary fashion, Alice came up to Olga chattering away , stood right in front of her, and as she talked she put her hand on Olga's arm. Olga smacked the hand away, then Alice smacked Olga's hand in return. Two more slaps occurred before a nurse's aid came and broke it up. Such confrontations are really exceptional. I mentioned one involving Mildred much earlier in this narrative.

Judy has remained rather subdued and not at all troublesome. But the other day there was a delightful young woman who comes periodically and plays the accordion and sings some of the old-time songs and encourages those who will to sing along. Often, the nurse's aids encourage individuals to sing along, and sometimes themselves just for fun dance with the music, or sometimes take one of the residents as a partner and gently dance around with him/her. Judy walked over and began to reach her hand slowly onto the accordion in a way that presented some difficulty for the accordion player. One might have expected the nurse's aid to come over and take Judy's hand and say something like: "Come on, Judy, we mustn't touch the accordion while the woman is playing," and gently lead Judy away.

But no, not quite. Instead, the nurse's aid gently took Judy's hands in hers and slowly started to dance with her. Such a wonderful, sensitive way of handling that situation. Judy loved it, and as they danced, the nurse's aid gradually put her arms around her and hugged her. There has got to be a spot in heaven for that nurse's aid!


Lilly continues to be outspoken and constitute something of a problem. She has that quiet air of self-confidence while she sits and utters occasional proclamations to the general public. They are not confined to her being a princess.

The other day, she proclaimed "The United States is the strongest country in the world." She repeated this statement every few minutes, sometimes adding that Russia was full of communists.

Mildred, described much earlier, often takes it upon herself to tell Lilly to keep quiet. Lilly, who is Jewish, sometimes responds with "Jewish people like to talk." Often, such an interchange with Mildred continues until Mildred terminates the conversation with great disdain and turns to her neighbor and apparently says some not-too-favorable things about Lilly. One time Lilly asked Mildred, "Are you a princess?" Her antics always get Mildred's goat. "No," Mildred said in disgust, "I am not a princess, I'm just Mildred." Lilly's quiet rejoinder was, "You're not good enough."

It will be recalled that Alice is the one who has the droning voice and walks around using it in largely unintelligible expressions. As it happens, Alice has a very sharp-boned nose, to the extent that Lilly remarked to her one day: "You have a Jewish nose."

Lilly is quite an extrovert, and is just as likely to ask some visitor: "Where were you born?" or "Are you from France?" The other day I happened to sit next to her and she said "What is your name?" I said, "Lilly, you know my name is Roland." "Oh, yes, Roland," she said. She had previously remarked, when I told her my name, "That's a French name, and she added, "I read a poem about it when I was in high school." Sure enough: La Cancion de Roland. On another occasion she asked me, "Are you from Ireland?" I said "No way," and asked her why she wondered if I was from Ireland. She pointed to a throw-shawl which I was carrying for my wife, and said, "Because you like green." The other day, my wife who is not eating much these days, left most of her apple pie. Later, as we walked past the table area, I noticed Lilly standing at our table, eating the remainder of my wife's apple pie. She is on a restricted diet and never gets as much as she wants.

All in all, though, I have had more reasonably rational conversations with Lilly than with anyone else. I have talked at length with one of the male residents, but since he is French Canadian and has a strong accent and speaks softly, I have difficulty keeping up my end of the conversation, while he may be going on at length.

How I Perceive All This

Having been here now for over six months, I look inward at my own experience. These days for me have been simply fascinating. It seems understood by the residents in various degrees that somehow I am different from the others, being more active and in other ways. Still, they accept me as part of their environment as I accept them. It is true that the residents hardly offer food for scintillating conversation, or for any degree of mutual fondness. Yet, in a sense, I am fond of them. I enjoy being with them, especially watching them as they go about being who they are and how they are. I feel somewhat as some people remark about others with whom they associate in various situations: "They're like family to me." I feel that on a certain level I "know" each one of them, know how they behave, how they react to different situations. I have never before had experience with people whose thinking and emotions are out of order, as it were. I guess it can be summed up by saying that they no longer seem strange to me with their various idiosyncrasies. I am comfortable with them and even enjoy being with them. As I write this I recall having a somewhat similar experience with my many contacts with inmates at Attica prison.

I have described the daily procedures here and the way the residents spend their time. It may be of interest how I spend mine. This report which you are reading gives one indication. I spend time with my laptop computer, and have written not only this article but some other things as well, since by nature I must write in order to be happy. I sit a few minutes with my wife in the lounge before and after meals and watch with interest what the other residents are doing, such as described in this article. I spend many hours reading, chiefly novels and news and opinion magazines. I have already mentioned my afternoon walks, perhaps four or five times a week. Our daughter lives nearby and visits with us every couple of days. In the evenings after my wife has gone to bed, when things have quieted down and I will not be interrupted, I go a few steps to the main lounge, where among the other pieces of sumptuous furniture is a grand piano. I usually play for about an hour. Then I read for the rest of the evening, enjoying the free time when I can be by myself and there is no call to respond to my wife's occasional needs.

Some Later Developments

Most every day, Lilly comes to our table by the window and looks out toward the parking lot and says with some satisfaction, "My daughter's car is there." Her daughter has a red Jimmy, much like ours though a shade darker. She mistakes our car, which is always parked there, for her daughter's, which indeed is occasionally there every couple of days. It always pleases her to see that her daughter's car is there.

Lilly has become increasingly what her son calls "chatty aggressive." In her calm but loud voice, she will sit in the lounge before or after breakfast and say, "Orange juice, please," repeatedly, every minute or so. The other day she said it about fifty times. This kind of thing gets Mildred upset, and she often points her finger at her and says, Be quiet! or if it persists, Shut up! Lilly sometimes says Alright, but most often she continues talking, repeating her statements (the other day it was The United States is the strongest country in the world). When she does, Mildred eventually gets disgusted and mutters something in frustration and turns to her neighbor to ignore Lilly's chatter. Interestingly, although Mildred often gets upset (she is used to giving such commands and having them obeyed), she soon forgets it and is friendly towards Lilly, the other day handing her a newspaper after she had finished looking at it.

The staff people get upset with Lilly's continual chatter, and admonish her with controlled impatience. She is not popular with them. On the other hand, I find Lilly interesting, and she is about the only one with whom I can have anything like a sustained conversation, even about trivia. I just observed recently that with all the hugging of residents by the aids, I have never seen any of them hug Lilly.

Miriam is practically back to the status quo ante of the "Aaaah! Aaaah!" business and all the rest of it. She also has a penchant for simply lying down sideways on one of the large sofas. Today, there was just room at her head for the nurse to seat Alice. I anticipated that the nurse would gently ask and help Miriam to get upright so that others could sit down on the sofa. Instead, she just put a cushion under Miriam's head so that she could sleep more comfortably. The response: Aaaah! Aaaah!

Alice is the one who does all the walking and talking in her droning voice. As described above she is thin, and somewhat stately, and like most others she has gray hair, in her case neatly swept back and loosely brushed. She often walks silently, and her tread is so smooth and regular that she seems to glide along. The other day as she did this, I could only think of a clipper ship, just smoothly sailing along. Pretty soon, she came back in the other direction, and I had the same perception all over again. Since then, whenever I see Alice walking along, I still am put in mind of a clipper ship.

When my wife and I sit at our table for the evening meal these days, the sun still shines in the windows and puts patterns of sunshine on the carpeted floor. Just this evening, Alice came floating by and stopped and bent over and spent quite some time trying to pick up some of the sunshine spots. I guess there was something symbolic about Alice grasping for the sunshine, but anyway, "weeper" that I am, I found myself wiping away a tear.

Quaker Meeting?

Just today, as I sat in the circle with my wife and about twenty residents, I noticed some with their heads bowed, one or two obviously sleeping, others gazing in apparent silent meditation. Suddenly, I thought: Just like a Quaker meeting! And in a Quaker meeting, there is an occasional break in the silence, as someone believes to be led by the spirit to speak - almost always a few words of spiritual import. So, at the gathering this morning, two people spoke, but not necessarily led by the Spirit. Lilly proclaimed: "The communists are coming." And Mildred responded: "Shut up!" There was another occasional message from Miriam: "Aaaah! Aaaah!"

Much later: Well, Miriam has gone - to a nursing home. I still think of her and think that she is a sort of prototype of the tragedy which has affected all the residents here. What they have been, and what they are now --- a tragedy. I must say, I get no comfort from the Book of Job - just anger.

Mildred is the only resident that responds to Lilly's chatter. Sometimes, she responds in a perfectly direct way, for example, to Lilly's "The United States is the most powerful country in the world," everyone except Mildred simply ignores it, but Mildred responds something like, "We all know that." This does not stop Lilly, who goes on either repeating the statement or making other statements. Mildred may try to respond directly, but soon gives up and tells Lilly to shut up. Lilly sometimes complies, but most often goes on talking.

But now there is a new development. A new resident woman perhaps seventy years old whom we shall call Jane began to talk directly across the lounge with Lilly, and Mildred told her "Don't talk to her. It just encourages her." To which Jane responded softly, "I'll talk when I want," and continued with a brief interchange. This was not what Mildred expected or wanted, for it must have seemed a quiet rebuke and also posed a threat to Mildred's hegemony over the group. Mildred took it a while and then quietly got up and walked away. But she soon came back, and there was the usual chattering by Lilly and Shut up! by Mildred. Jane then looked across at me and said something too soft for me to hear, but I am sure it was to the effect that Mildred was making as much disturbance as Lilly, and this annoyed her.

Of course I, too, get tired of hearing this constant interplay between Lilly and Mildred, and like the rest of them, apparently, I would just as soon let Lilly alone to her continued chatter, which is not all that bad. But Mildred simply cannot resist the bait.

This all may sound critical of Mildred, so let me state that in general Mildred seems to perform a most useful function of being extremely friendly with most all of the residents, often doing a lot of face stroking and hugging and an occasional kiss, and they all seem to like it and feel good with such a warm, friendly approach. My trouble is that she tries this on me, and I have told her on two occasions that I am not the "touchy" type. I try to stay out of her direct way, because this friendly caressing, plus "Hello, honey," or "Hello, deary," drives me up the wall. But on balance, Mildred is a cheering presence, and God knows they need it here, over and above the good loving work that the aids do in this respect..

As mentioned above, Jane is fairly new to the group here. My daughter reminded me recently that Jane was not new to the facility, but had lived formerly on the other side. She reminded me that she was one of the couple whom we visited months ago at the suggestion of an aid who thought that, being cat people, we would enjoy seeing their cats and talking with them. Which we did. The woman (Jane) was dozing pretty much, so the man showed us the cats and had a pleasant conversation with us.

A few days later, I was mentioning to one of the administrative staff how nice this couple was, and she frowned somewhat and said, "You know, they are not married. They are simply living together." I was surprised, but not particularly shocked at the idea of two unmarried people at least seventy years old living together in one of the suites here. But I was surprised at the critical attitude of my informant, given the kind and permissive attitude here. A few days later, the matter came up while I was talking with one of the nurses, and she expressed the same resigned but critical attitude. She said, with some disdain, "Imagine him taking care of her and wiping her bottom and all that, and then---" I guess Puritanism still survives in this New England state.

Anyway, now, months later, Jane turns up in our building rather than in her former dwelling. What happened? Believe me, I'll find out!

There is another woman enjoying a sense of mission in performing a given task day after day. Like my wife, she is in a wheel chair, and she can operate it slowly but effectively by grasping her hands at the wheels. Her self-appointed task is to be sure that she and her wheel chair are in our way whenever possible. It is phenomenal how she manages to be there at the right time, for in some cases it must take a degree of prescience to know where we are going to turn up there, (I pushing my wife's wheel chair). Most often, though, it is predictable. One way is to place her chair at the opening to the circle of residents sitting in the lounge, so we can't get into the circle to find a space somewhere within it. The other is simply in the corridor, to be in the middle of it so we can't get past. But as a special occasion, the other day she had her chair lined up with that of another resident so that there wasn't even room for anyone to walk past. She often moves on in such situations, but not when she blocks our entrance into the circle of residents.

This morning (it is now July 1, 2001) while sitting waiting for breakfast, the whole group from our dining room walked by or were escorted by, or were wheel chaired by from the lounge into the dining room. I know them all, have seen them all under various circumstances, especially in the lounge. This time as I saw them, I was most aware of their individual faces, their facial contours, their facial expressions. How interesting they all were. Some were complacent, some troubled, some looking relatively happy as they went along. They certainly are a wide variety of facial physiognomies. But as I saw each one, I wondered what that person had been like in his or her prime -say forty or fifty years ago. They now have such different bearings, even in their infirmity, that one can only surmise that this one was perhaps a professional person, maybe even an intellectual, or this one was busy raising children and being a handsome, active, caring mother.

I thought of Miriam, the Aaaah! Aaaah! woman. She always looks so stressed and unhappy, which I am sure she is. I was able to see a picture of her from twenty years or so ago. There is a little glass-enclosed double shelf outside each person's room, in which they put mementos of various kinds, including often photographs. When I first saw this photo of her as I walked past her room, I came close to crying. Here was a lovely woman in late middle age, with a smile on her handsome face - one who enjoyed life and gave the impression of being the mother of a happy brood of children. Now - that poor woman! It breaks me up even to write this. Anyway, as I look at all these faces as they go by, I think of Miriam, and wonder what kind of life - no doubt better than now, and more stimulating -- these individual people led. And what they must have looked like in their prime.

More Vignettes

Now for Peter. He is a nice guy, about six feet tall, and looks to be somewhere in his forties. He has quite a beard, but when he smiles it all shows through. He seems very weak on his feet, just barely making it to walk. Occasionally, he has in one hand what looks like a soccer ball, only about half the size, perhaps 5 inches in diameter. He seems to want someone to have a catch with him, but never asks. The first time I tried it, the experience was interesting. He is rather clumsy catching, but when he throws the ball, he winds up like a pitcher, forward foot bent up, etc., and throws the ball rather fast. He seems to insist on being no more than ten feet away, so I have to be on my guard to catch it. It is usually thrown accurately, though. His windup looks so "professional" that I asked him if he had been a ball player, and he said Not at all. But the way he winds up and throws the ball, it makes one wonder. We have perhaps twenty or so back and forths, and then my back gets tired, so I say we'll have five more throws, and we do that and end it. He is most happy when he is doing this. He isn't terribly effusive - he does not usually greet people unless they greet him first - but even before these catch sessions I had smiled and said Hello, and now, with the prospect of another catch, it is so nice to see his face light up when he sees me.


Independence Day. The lounge is all decorated with balloons, streamers, flags, etc., very elaborate and a lot of work. Breakfast consisted of two waffles, one with strawberries, one with blueberries, topped by whipped cream. Red, white, and blueberries. Get it?

In the lounge, patriotic songs were on the hi-fi, and most all the residents in our section were gathered. When the music came to God Bless America, Lilly stood up so suddenly she nearly fell over. She tried again and stood up and saluted and sang all the words. When it was finished, she sat down.

Much later: Lilly has a TV in her room, and is the most lucid of the residents, so she was aware of the events of September 11, 2001. On the 13th, she repeated several times at breakfast, "The World Trade Center and the Empire State Building have been bombed. God bless America." When she came out into the lounge, she repeated this, and added: "I didn't get bombed. God protected this little chicken. Thank you God, for saving my life." Later, she stood up and said "God Bless America, the greatest nation on earth. Stand up, everybody, and sing God Bless America." She sang it, marching around the lounge. Meanwhile, no-one else stood up. Half of them were dozing off, and the other half simply ignored her. I think that only one other resident is really aware of what happened on September 11.

A day or so later, I am sitting in the lounge and observing two interesting sets of mutual attraction, or we might call it modest pairing. I mentioned Maude and Larry some pages ago. They continue their minimal pairing, and today they both walked from the corridor into the lounge hand in hand. She found a seat, but he did not, so she got up and they both walked away together.

The other situation involves Jane. She was sitting at the edge of the settee and Henry was next to her -- only a solar system away. His arm was near hers, so she put her hand on his arm and for quite a while just stroked gently. No big deal, but she seemed to enjoy being next to a man in this minimal "touchy" way. One of the women residents occasionally puts her hand on my arm when she sits next to me. Same thing, I think. The only other one who touches me is Mildred, but that is different. She touches every one. Incidentally, Mildred's face-stroking, hugging, and occasional kissing is only for the women, distributed without discrimination, except that she never does this with Lilly.

The other day, though, they were sitting next to each other in the lounge, having a friendly conversation. But since then, we have had more declamations by Lilly and Shut Up's by Mildred.

My Own Changes

My own participation is undergoing a change. I have gradually been able to establish a Hello hand-waiving with about half of the thirty or so residents here. Further, in the lounge there are a few, including Lilly, Mildred, Jane, and a newer arrival whom I'll call Hortense. I got to talking with her one day, and she told me that she and her husband had a farm up north in New Hampshire and had a herd of three hundred cows.

So now, in the lounge, I am likely to be talking with others across the room, in a modest way about the weather, meals, etc.; One thing which has helped loosen things up is that there are four big easy chairs that are so deep that it is uncomfortable for the women to sit in them unless they have a cushion to support their back. So I have gotten into the habit of seeing that each one gets a cushion placed at her back when she sits down in one of those deep chairs. This creates some expressions of mild admiration from some of the others - Big deal, how nice of that man to be so helpful! So that has loosened things up a bit and made it easier for some of them to relate to me and vice versa. I must also mention that it is very moving to see some resident leading another resident by the hand from the lounge to the dining room, or vice versa. There is more interaction and mutual concern among residents than I was earlier aware of.

I am not immune to making an occasional faux pas. Two of them come to mind. There was a particular nurse's aid helping me out, and her mode of carriage and motion gave me the obvious conclusion that she was pregnant. So, one time I asked her out of a clear sky how far along she was. At first, she did not understand. Then I mentioned that I was referring to her being pregnant. "I'm not," she said. I felt like a fool.

The other was with the hairdresser who comes in here two days a week. She did my wife's hair a little too curly, really much too curly for our taste. We were in the dining room and I pointed out one of the other residents, and said, "We'd like you to do my wife's hair more like hers." The hairdresser looked at this other woman where I was pointing, and mumbled, "Well, her hair is naturally curly." It was only much later that I learned that that woman's hair was a wig.

During breakfast and the evening meal especially, there is an occasional banging noise that comes from the nurse as she uses a pill puncher to grind some pills into powder form. But often, that is not the only banging noise. We have two "bangers" in our section. One is in the other dining room, but we can hear him plainly as he bangs a cup or a knife or fork against his table, perhaps twenty times in quick succession, making a most impressive racket.. The other is Olga, mentioned some pages back. She is apparently much disturbed, and every once in a while she lets go with repeating a single word such as day, day, day, day, etc. loudly -- many times, if someone does not tell her to stop it.

But someone usually does, and that someone is (you guessed it!) Mildred. Olga sometimes does this at the table. But she also does banging. She bangs with the flat of her hand very, very rapidly, for two dozen or so times, or until --- yes, Mildred calls to her to stop it; she may then comply, and may not.

These two "bangers" are not so active at every meal; but when they are -- and occasionally both at once -- it helps keep things interesting.

Strange; a day after I wrote this, Olga came along past our suite door and gave it her c.20 knocks, which took about 6 seconds.

A woman comes in every month with a large number of table easels, water color paint outfits, brushes, painting paper, and mats. She sets all of the residents who volunteer at the tables and tells them to go ahead, assisting some with the logistics of getting started. They paint two or three pictures each, quite free style, and they sign them and she mats them. Then, these matted pieces get placed in various spots in the common areas, for all to see. Some of them are extremely simple, and few of them show any degree of painting technique. But I am amazed and gratified each month to see these colorful paintings, and pleasantly surprised at how much originality they show. Some of the ideas they portray are simply lovely - mostly free style. But what gets me is the creativity of the images they paint. I look at some of them with envy, thinking that I would have no way of devising such creative and attractive pieces. And many of these "artists" can hardly hold a brush in their hands.

September 27, 2001 --- In looking over the names of the residents, I note that Miriam has long since gone to "a different facility," I was told. The very same with Florence, although in her case they specified a nursing home. Jane, also, has left, I know not where. She was failing perceptibly, though. There have been a small number of others who came and/or left, not specified by name in this account of mine.

I have not made many entries recently, because most everything that happens these days is a repeat of the anecdotes described in all this. For example, Lillian continues to say some word like Damn, Damn, Damn or doe, doe, doe on and on until Mildred tells her to shut up. Lilly continues with he repeated statements, topped by a Shut up from Mildred. I notice these days that half of the encounters between Mildred and Lilly are acrimonious, but the other half are friendly, as though nothing untoward had happened between them. The woman who adjusts our Venetian blinds continues to do so. I play catch with Paul now and then, and so on. (Later: Paul can no longer walk or even get up from a chair unassisted, so the catches are over. He still can get up a nice smile when I greet him.)Irene continuous her clipper ship walks, Henry fades to another planet, and life goes on.

Two differences are worthy of note.
First, there is more communication, often verbal, among residents than I had at first been aware of.
Second, I have finally developed a talking relationship with Lawrence, and he acts quite friendly.

Sarah is a newcomer. I believe I recall seeing her as a resident of the other section, which is for residents less advanced in their illness. At any rate, she is fairly vague and has apparently deteriorated so that she needs the extra care of our section. She is rather aristocratic looking, and her demeanor is such that I assume she comes from a relatively well-educated, affluent background..

Sarah wandered into our room one day and I explained gently (as with other unannounced visitors) that she was in the wrong room, and could I help her by finding a nurse's aid to take her to her room (I didn't know its location). The other day, when we had two female guests from outside, she came in again, and I went through the same words with her, but this time she insisted she wanted to come on into the room and would not be persuaded to leave. I asked one of our guests to talk with her while I chased for a nurse's aid to come get her.

"Good luck!" I said to the nurse's aid, for I had been unable to persuade Sarah to leave. I expected her to say to Sarah something like, "Come with me, Sarah, this isn't your room, and I'll take you to the lounge (or to your room)." No. Instead she simply said, "Sarah, I'm baking cookies and I need your help. Do you want to come and help me?"

She did that so well! and illustrated so well why I feel that the people who work at this place are really super. (Yes, she was baking cookies at the time, along with three or four residents who were able to help her decorate them.).

Sitting in the lounge along with most of the residents from this section, I was thinking last night about my relationship to them. A number of thoughts crossed my mind. I was aware that some of the residents had aged, their condition had deteriorated markedly. I think of Peter, who is no longer able to stand up and toss a ball, and is generally withdrawn into a dozing state. There are others, as well. On the other hand, Alice is precisely the same as she was when we first arrived, as are some of the others. Alice continues as described variously above, and continues about once every two or three months, away in some corner, somewhat abstractedly taking her pants down. Lilly is much the same as when we came. The latest was when she came to look out to see her daughter's car, and she said, "I have to find the judge." I asked her why. She said, "To find out what's wrong with me." I asked her what the problem was. She proclaimed matter-of-factly, "I shit all day long." Coward that I am, I beat a hasty retreat from the conversation, suggesting that she should see the nurse.

My Relationships

Now to continue with my relationship to these residents, I realized today that I have probably spent more time in their company than I have with my closest friends throughout my life, or even my relatives beyond my immediate family. I care about them, and try to be of help to them when I can, pushing a wheelchair, taking an empty glass off their hands, calling a nurse's aid for them, or getting a cushion - little things. But I cannot honestly call them my friends. Why not? Two reasons, as I cogitate about it. One is the measure which I also applied to my relationship to inmates at Attica Prison. Would I want to be friends with them, and see them, on the outside? The answer in all these cases, frankly, is no. The other reason is that somehow friendship, if it is genuine, involves a sense of mutual reciprocation. Sadly, most if not all these residents are not able to assume the obligations which friendship must invariably incur. I certainly do not expect it of them, nor do I in any way resent their not giving it. I am simply trying to be honest in what I mean by friendship.

Yet, I feel most comfortable with them. I enjoy sitting in their midst. I enjoy most of their idiosyncracies, but not all. I do not enjoy seeing the three or four of them who often have spittle dripping in a long string from their nose. I don't enjoy seeing Henry wipe his nose with the palm of his hand and then walk around gazing at the mess in his cupped hand. I don't enjoy Alice's grating monotone when she sits across from us and mumbles loudly in her unpleasant voice a half hour at a stretch. But these unpleasantries are only intermittent, and most of the time there are no such repulsive actions.

In another vein, come to think of it, with all these people with all their troubles, I am surprised that there has been very little weeping, and few if any moanings from pain. Most of these people are not in pain but simply lack the coordination for ordinary activities such as normal walking; and most of them are also partially or largely withdrawn from alertness to the present reality. I would not call them comatose - just "dozing," as I have written many times above.

Now, much later, I note that Lawrence still plumps himself down on a sofa regardless of whether or not there is room. The other day, he came in with Maude (this happens occasionally, but not steadily) and one sofa was completely empty, while the other one had Mildred and another resident woman, very slight. It should be recalled that Maude is an extremely big, broad woman. Anyway, rather than taking the empty sofa, Lawrence and Maude sat down on the sofa with Mildred and her friend, squeezing them quite noticeably. As usual, these two simply moved over to give them room, without any expression of annoyance. The four sat for a while, and then Mildred and her friend got up without a word or scowl and seated themselves on the other, empty, sofa.

This was an interesting morning in the lounge. There is a new resident, Charlie, who is pretty far gone. He is bent way over, quite feeble, although he does walk unaccompanied. He is given to groaning with a loud Aaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! every two seconds or so. He has this turned on about half the time, and it reverberates through the corridors. Mildred was the first to comment on it, and said to her neighbor: "I don't want to hear that all day." But then Charlie came over and sat in the chair next to my wife and howled his loud calls. My wife shouted "Stop that!" good and loud, and he ceased for about five seconds or so, somewhat bewildered, then began the loud howling again. My wife shouted even louder, and Mildred, across the lounge, reinforced her. Charlie soon got up and shuffled away, resuming his loud howling after a minute or so. He is going to be a problem with that howling. It is really almost unbearably loud, and goes on and on in the most grating fashion.

Mildred was seated in the left part of a sofa. Henry was sitting next to her, and Lawrence was on his other side. Henry kept falling asleep and gradually leaning farther and farther over toward Mildred. She gently tried to get him upright. The first time the effort failed, so she tried again. This time he became angry and grabbed her hand. So, she desisted. Henry kept tilting over, and she ignored it. After a while, he tried to get up off the sofa, and both Mildred and Lawrence gave a helping hand pushing at his back. This was the first time I ever saw Lawrence do anything for anyone.

Meantime, Lilly came out and sat down in her rather short nighty, and sprawled down in a deep chair with her legs wide apart so that she was exposed about up to her navel, covered only by her incontinence wrapper. It was really unsightly, and of course Mildred called to her to close her legs, at which Lilly replied that she had nice legs and didn't care to move them. This went on and on, until finally a nurse's aid went over to Lilly and said "Come on, we're going to get you dressed." Lilly complied, and off they went. Later, Lilly returned in conventional dress. She is very talkative, and among other things she called across to Mildred saying, "You have nice legs." Mildred smiled and waved and said, "So have you."

These sudden shifts in modes of confrontation, especially by Mildred, may or may not be related to short memory span, but at any rate they are pleasant to see.

Return to the CD Introduction