“When the 5 senses fail, maloriented and disoriented elderly stimulate and use their
‘inner senses’. They see with their ‘mind’s eye’ and hear sounds from the past.” -Validation Principle #9
Inside the nearly deserted dining room. In the most inaccessible corner, I discover Mina, seated on a chair between the wooden cabinets and the stainless steel side-wall of the elevator. Mina’s stern and pale face stares down, silent. “She does not want to get out. Can you do something? – How did she get there? – She pushed the chair. Can you get her out? What shall we do? – We look too anxious. She needs time. I will sit with her.” I wheel a stool next to Mina, and sit down with caution. The assistant disappears.
While cleaning and piling up the dirty table wares, the lunch stewardess is discreetly observing us. The three of us are now alone. Crowded and hectic at meal times, this kitchen part of the dining room is off limit to residents. The food-warmer carts from the central kitchen are parked there. The staff lines up to pick up plates of food, drinks and trays. A few determined residents regularly manage to cross the unmarked threshold separating dining and kitchen spaces. When Betty reaches into the fridge, biting directly into the shrink wrapped sandwiches or sliced cheese packages, there is no stopping her. Sometimes a couple of Polish residents bring in their half-full plates, nicely wrapped into white terry cloth napkins, like valuable offerings.
Mina moved with us two months ago from a regular unit. After becoming too aggressive, too loud, too disoriented, she needed more support and structure. We learned that Mina could rapidly switch from being sweet and tender to spitting, scratching and hitting. The nurse’s assistants recently showed me scratches and bruises on their arms caused by Mina’s tantrums. “Can you speak about this to the management? Can you help us?”
Mina reaches delicately for my hand. I am glad. I am comforted. We sit together: “Little Prince” technique. Do not question, observe. When Mina breathes out, she emits a low “Humm” sigh. I wonder if I should join in. Would she think I am mocking her? Would the “Humm” become a scream? Mina‘s hearing is impaired. She comes from the Soviet Union. She understands a little bit of English. I am fine with silence; her body language says enough. I think of the compression’s boxes created by Temple Grandin to control her anxieties. Is it how Mina picked this corner?
After a while,(five minutes?) I slowly stand up. In my primitive Russian, I express my desire to have her move: “Davai, Idiom”. Mina follows me with small steps. I place her walker in front of her. I guide her hands toward the handles. We hobble out of the kitchen corner. We now need to cross the empty dining room to reach the activity room. Mina is expected to spend her afternoon there, safely watched by the staff. She resists walking straight, veering instead irresistibly to the left. Are we going back into the narrow corner? Shall we take the service elevator that we are now facing? Why not? We could get off at another floor, stroll around and return back to here. I punch the secret code on the wall-keyboard. The steel doors open. We trot inside. Mina settles against the right corner. I press four. Mina’s husband lives in the fourth floor. I remember Mina. coming to visit him, a few years ago; elegant and smiling woman sitting by Sasha’s side as I was entertaining the assembly with my accordion. That time is over. Their relationship has deteriorated into fights. His condition of forgetfulness and disorientation has been stable while hers took a sharp downward turn. The doors open revealing the fourth floor dining room. The steward recognizes me with a “Hi!” followed by a surprised look towards Mina. This elevator should not be used by residents. “Idiom! Davai!” Mina refuses to move towards the door. Instead, she turns her body towards the back wall of the elevator, hitting the metal with her walker. Is this her way out? Unfortunately I see no opening. The doors close. Let’s try another floor. I push G . The doors open revealing the ground floor storage area. This might not be the best choice. “Idiom!” Mina refuses to get out. She turns to the right and bangs on the metal wall with her fist. Surprised that it hurts, the pain makes her stop. She looks at me. I hold her hand in mine, to soothe it. The doors close. Now we are going up. I stop pushing the floors buttons. The doors open. Large carts are waiting in front of the opening, headed to the basement’s central kitchen. Food stewards stare at us: “Are you coming out?” “No, I don’t think we are. Come in.” We travel down in the company of the carts and the employees. I like their careful presence. We travel up alone. Mina has gently nested her head on my right shoulder. We are resting against each other, leaning against the right wall of the elevator. On the fifth floor an employee has been waiting with a particularly long cart. A couple of times she let us go by while complaining that she cannot wait and it is getting late. It seems that the cart cannot fit with us inside the elevator. The third time I tell her, “Why don’t you try?” The cart fits with Mina, me and the walker, all squeezed.
Now all the carts and stewards have reached the basement. We are alone. I am not checking anymore if the elevator is moving or not. Mina slides her left arm around my waist. Are we getting too close? Am I doing too much? Is it how lovers hold each other? Will she get tired and slide down? She can sit on her walker if needed. I am getting claustrophobic. Do we have enough oxygen? My dad was afraid of elevators. Maybe this is how he was feeling, trapped inside. Will I be here all afternoon?
The doors open. Two massive construction workers are ready to step inside. They hesitate a little bit with a questioning look, when they see us. “Guys come in! You are going to help us. – Sure, let us know what we can do.” I have no idea but their strong bodies radiate a hopeful energy. “Can you press two? Maybe the men could lift Mina? Can we force her to move? The doors open: “Can you hold the doors for us? And you, can you come to the right of the resident?” Maybe this benevolent human can bring his warm body against that cold and hurtful imaginary door and neutralize it. The bulky man slides against the back of the elevator. “Davai, idiom.” I gently direct Mina’s attention towards the opening. I see her walker slightly angling left. Slowly, I come in front of her. I walk backward, holding her hands, on the walker’s handles. We make it out of the elevator. “Thanks a lot, guys!”
Odile Lavault, March 2014