A Beautiful Encounter

A woman visited Thetford.  She was researching small group homes for her husband who has dementia.  She was in her mid 70’s, with a gentle energy and clear blue eyes that hinted of fatigue. Dangling earrings matched the color of her eyes and her clothing had a freedom of style and color. In spite of emotion and stress that her situation brings, she shows freedom and joy. I show her the house, answer her questions about cost and staffing, and then, like old friends, we make ourselves comfortable at the kitchen table with cups of tea.

“I want you to know everything about my husband,”  she tells me.   Then you decide if you can take care of him.”

“He needs help with many things.  Dressing.   His food needs to be cut small so he can eat with his fingers. He is a nice man but he can raise his voice.  Once or twice he frightened me with his temper. He has moments of awareness when he knows something in his brain is not working.”

Her story wanders from his current condition to their life before his disease.  They met when she was 15.  They had always been friends.  His military career led them around the world. They lived inside and outside the United States and they raised their 6 children.  Ten years ago she noticed that his highly structured daily routines were beginning to fray.

“I don’t know the exact diagnosis.  No one really knows.  He might have been exposed to chemicals during the war.  He was one of those men who never spoke about what happened.”

“My children are encouraging me to find a home for him so that I can have some freedom from being a caregiver.”  Her voice has no trace of resentment or bitterness, but it admits to loneliness.  “They want me to have a life.  They want to spend more time with me.  But it’s hard for them.  They don’t know what to do.

We spoke for over two hours.   Our conversation trailed back and forth over the details of their lives and especially their recent experiences… how frightening it can be to see someone with dementia, how we don’t know how to just be present with someone, or how to sit and hold hands and have that be enough.  We all operate based upon a mutual understanding of how relationships work.  When one partner can no longer operate from this shared understanding,  people don’t know how to act.

“With my husband, I learned how to dance the dance, how to head off a storm and how to get out of the way,” she says.  “So far it has worked.”

She continues with her stories.  As she speaks I visualize her husband’s late afternoon sundowning and hear the opera playing in that background that she puts on to sooth him.  I can see her helping him into the back seat of her huge SUV because this is the only car that works for maneuvering him into the back seat.  He still likes going to the grocery store and it something they can do.

“But I have to plan.”  “My children say it is time”.

It is my moment of truth. How I would love to fill the vacant room at Thetford!  I would enjoy having her and, consequently, her husband as a part of the Thetford family.  If I choose to I can support her children’s perspective.

But a deeper truth emerges. It is a story of her love and her commitment.  It is the gift of her sharing.

“ It sounds to me that you are’t ready to stop caring for him. I say.

She looks at me and pauses.   “You’re right.”

“When the times comes and you can’t take care of him anymore, you will know.” I say.

It is a decision that only she can make.   

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