“I need to see my mother!” In the middle of the communal day room, D. stands up from her wheelchair. D. was admitted less than a week ago. We are not sure about her balance. She is not sure either. She has already told me some of her history. Both of her parents spent their last years in this facility. Yesterday afternoon we took a stroll along the long sunny corridor, next to the garden. D. remembered visiting her mother here. “She was old (pointing to her head) I was not sure if she recognized me. She died.”
This conversation plays in my mind as I am figuring out a strategy. I grab a chair to sit next to D who agrees to sit down. I start with open questions:
“-Where does your mother live?
-When was the last time you saw her?
-Two weeks ago.
-What does she do all day?
-Not much. It’s so stupid. She is alone somewhere and I am here alone. I am losing my time.”
I scan the room for a resident who could break D.’s solitude. Most of the elders are seated in compatible clusters. A man softly sings Russian songs for a small circle of admirers. Two women are arguing. Some watch a nature program on TV. A few are reading magazines. Some are focusing on all possible ways to interact individually or collectively with simple objects spread on the table in front of them. Some are snoozing. Who could be a “mother” for D.?
D. scans the room too, until her face lights up. She points to someone a few tables away:
“Could she be my mother, with the yellow sweater?”
Again D. attempts to stand up.
“Wait here, I will ask her if she can sit with you.”
T., the resident with the yellow sweater, rarely speaks. A few times a day she belts out a short scream or a theatrical deep laugh, or she utters a couple of loud raspy words, usually a repetition of what is being said to or around her. When T. was admitted, I was asked to spend time with her. She was angry. She would grab and pinch every human in sight. She was picking up food or drinks, taking a bite or a sip and throwing them away. We learned to anticipate the projectiles and run for cover. I spent hours walking with her arm in arm, learning slowly what she liked and finding a common language. She was craving physical contact, attention and tenderness, but was often not willing or able to stay within pleasant limits. Now, three years later, she has become unexpectedly mellow and seems to have found a place of comfort. Still, we are careful to keep her away from residents who might resent her “tough love” touch.
T. seems pleased to sit next to D. The two women lock eyes. D. smiles. T. observes D. with curiousity; no smile but interest and openness. D. asks: “Do you recognize me?” T. does not answer and does not initiate touch. I cannot read any particular feeling on her face. I notice her numerous and deep wrinkles, like the skin of a drying apple, it fits her mother’s role. D., who used to work as a beautician, has an amazingly smooth skin.
I stay in the room, tending to residents’ needs. From time to time D. turns to me, with interrogating eyes. Through my eyes I try to send reassurance to her, and to myself. Is it ethical what I am doing? For my defense I can say that D. picked T. herself. D. never said that SHE did not recognize her mother. Having just moved to a foreign place, D. needs to be recognized. It is why I feel comfortable using the “I need to see my mother.” In a symbolic way. D. has not found recognition in anybody’s eyes, yet. She has seen curiosity or indifference.
I pass ice cream sundaes around. D. makes sure that I offer one to T. The two women eat together, D. enjoys the treat. T. always has good appetite. D. smiles and relaxes. When she is done, she tells me: “I need to go home.” If the visit is over, it confirms that a visit has happened. A relationship has been nurtured. D. stands up from her wheelchair. I am looking for a strategy. I grab a chair to sit next to D, who agrees to sit with me. I ask open questions: “Where is your home?…
This happened two weeks ago. Since then, D. has been enjoying sitting next to T. a few hours each day. The two women often hold hands. D. watches out for T. The staff is careful to maintain the ambiguity, never mentioning T. as “Your mother”. D. knows that her mother died, but, to deal with the stress of transition, D. needs a mother. She was resourceful enough to find one. When we look at them side by side, it’s true that they kind of look alike.