By William Thomas

Writing in the Toronto Star, columnist Judith Timson recalls the story of a friend taking his 93-year-old mother to buy shoes.  The elderly lady used to be quite stylish. But now, the son knew the best thing for Mom was a pair of simple, lace-up walking shoes.  However, his mother insisted on high heels.  Cajoled into trying on the walking shoes, she looked down at her feet and declared that she liked the right one, but wasn’t so keen on the left one.  The man sat there stymied and then remembered Mom always loved a bargain.  So he told her that they were having a sale and if she bought the right one she could get the left one free.  She was delighted.  The deal was done.  Humour 1/Alzheimer’s 0.

Alzheimer’s might be the most horrible disease of our time in that the loss of mental faculties does not go lock and step with physical deterioration.  You could walk around in this insidious fog for a very, very long time.

The things that can make looking after an Alzheimer’s patient bearable are the dedication of the caregivers, the timeless attention and patience of the nursing staff and … humour.

The need for levity and the serenity it brings, however brief and fleeting, is about to get a whole lot greater.  An impending ‘dementia epidemic’ will see 1.4 million Canadians with Alzheimer’s by the year 2031 and 13 million Americans will succumb by 2050. Currently, 750,000 Canadians and 5.2 million Americans suffer from the disease and I truly believe it’s humour that gives their family and caregivers the strength to carry on.

When Harold, a gracious man, a retired school principal and a member of my family by marriage, came down with dementia in his early 90s, he was inconsolable.  He had always been busy in retirement, sitting on committees and volunteering for good causes.  He needed desperately to get back to his work. The problem was meetings — board meetings, parent/teacher meetings, Rotary Club meetings, meetings, meetings. A hectic schedule indeed despite the fact that he had been bedridden for a year and never left his hospital room.

My sister and her husband tried everything to convince him that all those meetings were in the past and he need not be concerned about them anymore.  This would only cause him to look at his watch and struggle to get out of bed, late once again for a meeting.

Then the Alzheimer’s consultant came up with a brilliant idea – a signing ceremony in which Harold, with great reluctance … and, after several meetings … initialled official resignation documents from every committee and organization he had ever belonged to.  Presto!  The weight was lifted.  Harold relaxed and slept better after that.

Somewhere between the tears and laughter, calmness and normalcy can visit the lives of patients of dementia and their loved ones, albeit temporarily.

At Northland Manor, where my mother Margaret spent the last two years of her life, humour came often and in very different ways.

Whenever I visited, I’d usually spot a sweet, elderly lady I had known for years.  As a shopkeeper she had been polite and talkative but never profane.  And yet there in the corner of the common room she would sit, singing some of the dirtiest sailor ditties I have ever heard.  In this case, a short memory was a blessing.

One day a young staffer began examining her to see if she was wet.  The woman stopped her cold and said:  “Honey, you want to see that sort of stuff go work in one of them strip clubs.  You’ll make more money there too!”

Once on a flight back from London, England, I sat beside a woman, a little older than me.  She sat in the window seat reading a book for almost the entire flight.  In the aisle seat, I did the same.  Somewhere over Ottawa we got to talking about our trips.  I had spent five days in the basement of the London Zoo researching a book.  She had flown to London to visit her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.  This woman had not seen her mother in seven years and her siblings in England had warned her to expect the worst.

The day after she arrived in London, she made her way to the nursing home. The woman at the reception directed her to the floor where her mother resided and she was instantly impressed by the brightness of the common room, the airy mood, the nurses making their rounds.

She immediately spotted her mother in a sofa chair in the corner.  She looked great, she was smiling the woman told me.  She took a deep breath and marched right up to her mother, sitting down on the edge of the sofa.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked and then got very close to her mother’s face so there could be no mistake.

When her mother looked blankly at her, she repeated the question, only louder:  “Do you know who I am?”

Gradually, her mother got this look of satisfaction on her face, leaned forward and whispered:  “No I don’t, dear.  But if you ask that nice lady in the white uniform over there – she might be able to help you out.”

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