SHIFT Magazine: The Cove Offers Comfort to Residents With Fading Memories

May 11, 2010  

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By Natalie Posgate
nposgate@mail.smu.edu

O CHRIST of God! whose life and death
Our own have reconciled,
Most quietly, most tenderly
Take home thy star-named child!

Upon a hill overlooking White Rock Lake sits The Cove, a memory loss center in the resort-of-a-retirement-community C.C. Young. It houses residents who are at the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Like any retirement home, the nurses handle their residents with great care. They help the residents with their showers, take them to their meals, and assist with memory activities.

When you step inside The Cove, it’s easy to forget that it is a nursing home. Stained glass lines the ceiling in the common area, the musty “old people” smell is nowhere to be found, and the mashed potatoes even taste decent. But then you remember its purpose when you see the keypad next to the automatic entrance doors. It makes cracking the code almost impossible for intruders, and escaping absolutely impossible for the residents.

***

Thy grace is in her patient eyes,
Thy words are on her tongue;

The residents have many loved ones who care about them, but sometimes visits are painful. Some cannot remember most of their lives; some cannot remember their own names.

Despite the pain, some visitors come back frequently to remember who their loved ones were before memory loss took over. Linda Kovak is one of these visitors. On this day she was visiting her friend Vesta*, a lady with a sharp wit and a love of chocolate.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“I’ve been here…” Vesta hesitated.

“When did Norvelle die?” prompted Linda.

“Well, he died in ’94.”

Linda explained that Vesta used to live with her brother Norvelle. When he died in 1994 she started to live at C.C. Young, but in a different building. She came to the Cove Memory Center about a year ago.

“What do you like to do?” I asked.

“Oh, sleeping,” Vesta chuckled. She turned to Linda. “What do I like to do?”

“What did you do in Blanton?” Linda asked, trying to guide Vesta’s memory to the activities she did in the last center she lived in at C.C. Young.

Vesta gazed down at the mahogany hardwood floor, her almond-brown eyes seeming to hunt for some clue into her past. Vesta’s eyes shifted to Linda. They asked her to nudge open the door to her memory.

“Remember, you took a writing class.”

“Oh I did, didn’t I?”

“What did you write about in your writing class?”

Vesta paused, and then slowly began to speak. “I wrote about my activities that I liked to do. And my memories,” she added.

Though she could not recall specific facts about herself easily, things like music were easy to remember. Vesta began to talk about how her favorite grade in school was the first grade. She could even remember a song they learned. As she sang the “lollypop” song, she closed her eyes and sang in ease.

But about a minute later, she could not remember her own age.

“Do you mind telling me how old you are?” I asked.

“If I can remember,” she said.

“You’re 95,” said Linda. “Remember? You just had a birthday.”

Vesta looked youthful for 95. Her face was wrinkled, but the creases that whiskered her lips, lined her forehead, and embraced her cheekbones seemed more the product of wisdom than of age. The brightness that shone from her face revealed her happy attitude and her free spirit. Her memory failure was the only obvious giveaway to her old age.

“Well, I reckon it’s about time for my dinner,” she said.

“Let’s get you some food,” said Linda

As Linda wheeled Vesta into the adjacent dining area, she thought of the time they first met 11 years ago at church. Linda knew Vesta would have been a great journalist because she always had the most appropriate and original things to say in a given situation. Linda liked to refer to Vesta’s original sayings as “Vesta-isms” because nobody else could word what she said quite as well. Vesta was always the sharpest tack in the bunch until last fall. Now she was here in The Cove, where her memory was about as short- lived as her favorite chocolate dessert sitting in front of her.

***

The very silence round her seems
As if the angels sung.

The dining area had a quaint 1950s feel. Various paintings of fruit arrangements lined the walls and a large window rested on the east side of the room. Eating in this room felt more like eating at home than in a retirement home.

Little conversation took place at each table. Most of the residents were happy to just eat their beef sandwiches in silence. For some, the silence would be awkward. At The Cove, the silence was a peaceful break from all the exhaustion of memory exercises. All the residents had to think about was the food in front of them.

The only conversation that took place was at the table closest to the entrance.

“I feel stupid,” said Ana, a petite lady whose head barely cleared the top of her chair.

“Why?” asked Vesta, who was sitting to the right of Ana.

“I just feel stupid. I don’t know the word for it, but I’m fine.”

“Did you do anything exciting today?” asked Edna, a lady who was sitting to the left of Ana.

“Well yes. It was so exciting. I just can’t remember what it was,” said Ana.

“So exciting that you can’t remember what it was,” Vesta laughed.

***

Her smile is as a listening child’s
Who hears its mother’s call;

Stretching always came after dinner. Twenty residents sat in the common area – some following the instructions coming from the boom box, some reading, and some talking amongst themselves. An old, fragile, white-haired woman lay in the fetal position on a loveseat, facing away from all of the action, revealing two large wet spots on her blue sweat pants near her buttocks.

Juvenile western music accompanied the male voice in the boom box that was delivering the stretching exercises like a nursery rhyme.

“Toes together, heels together, toes together, heels, now get ready to lift one knee!”

Olivia was among the group of residents not participating in the stretches. Generally she went straight to her room after dinner, so she was not familiar with the post-dining stretching activities in the evening. She preferred finding a sitcom on the television to occupy her time in the evening, but on this night she wanted to talk to the new face in The Cove.

“Are you excited for Easter?” Olivia asked me.

“I am. I’m going home for the weekend,” I said.

Olivia was wearing a purple and black checkered-patterned dress. She had strong prominent cheekbones, a large nose, and neat ear-length hair. She looked down at the black leather watch on her left wrist.

“That’s a pretty watch,” I said.

“Thank you, my sister gave it to me. She lives in another building here.”

“Do you like it here?”

“It’s not home and you never know what to expect, but it’s security.”

She seemed pretty sharp.

“Are you excited for Easter?”

***

The lilies of Thy perfect peace
About her pillow fall.

As the residents stretched, Glenda Torres reflected on her 16 months at The Cove as a certified nurse assistant. She knew that her sense of humor was what made the job easier. The things she saw occur in The Cove shouldn’t be funny, but they had to be to make her work less heart breaking.

Across the room, a nursing student approached a lady in a red sweater named Mary who was sleeping upright in a chair.

“Time for bed,” he said as he helped Mary out of her chair and guided her to her room.

***

She leans from out our clinging arms
To rest herself in Thine;

By 8:30 p.m., most of the residents were back in their rooms to wind down for the night. Only six remained in the common area. The evening nurse and two nursing students gave out medications. The threesome wheeled around a plastic cart that had separate labeled drawers for each resident. Before they distributed any medications, they double-checked what went to whom on the laptop sitting on top of the cart.

The evening nurse stepped back to let the students take charge. Her name was Gloria Nwosou, a woman who moved to the United States 25 years ago from Nigeria. It was her sixth year at The Cove. Throughout her time at The Cove she has seen some heartbreaking things. She thought of a few of the residents who no longer received visits after the severity of their memory loss caused the residents to forget entirely who their loved ones were.

After the residents received their nightly medications they went to their rooms, either on their own or with assistance. Only one resident remained.

The lady on the loveseat sat up and looked around. Her face looked like she wanted to say something but didn’t know how. Her chin was severely scabbed. The name on her white Velcro sneakers read “Vivian Henry.”

A male nurse named Justin began to pick her up to take her to bed. Vivian protested and clung to the loveseat as Justin and Gloria attempted to put her in a wheel chair. Vivian looked up at them with an indignant look, wanting to go to bed yet upset that she was forced from her comfort on the loveseat.

The hallways were quiet. Some rooms were filled with noise from televisions; others were dead silent. Most residents were asleep by 9 o’ clock.

***

Alone to Thee, dear Lord, can we
Our well-beloved resign.

Near the exit sat a table with various items on the surface. A sign above the table read “The Spotlight is on Mary Minton.” A framed biography sat in the middle of the table that told about Mary’s former life, from having four children to working as a secretary during World War II. A beautiful quilt that Mary once made covered the table, along with pictures of herself at the beach with her family. In that same frame rested a picture of Mary on her wedding day. She possessed a dignified elegance in her flowing white gown.

Every item on the table was a lifetime away for Mary. Now her days consisted of forgetting it was bedtime when Glenda undressed her and coming out of her room ten minutes later, fully clothed and her make-up redone.

If Mary could not remember when it was time for bed, then she would not remember how to take care of herself properly, which brings us back to why there is a code to exit The Cove. Some would call it defeat if they had to be locked into the place they lived. I just like to call it a sweet surrender.

***

*Note: For safety and privacy reasons, all residents’ names have been altered.

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