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McCallum: Always Packing

My mother is always packing. But at 96 and with advancing dementia, she isn’t going anywhere. In her small room in a nursing home, she lives in a perpetual state of confusion.

It’s not unusual for me to walk in and find her in a mental tizzy with her bureau drawers emptied onto the bed and piles of possessions strewn on the floor.

“Mom,” I say. “Are you packing?” She looks at me as if I should know that of course she’s packing and why do I waste my breath asking.

“I have to get out of here,” she says. “But I can’t walk down the road and I’m not driving. I don’t know what to do.” Then she adds, “The food is terrible and there are too many old people here.” Welcome to life on the memory care unit. This one happens to be across the border in New York state, but it could be anywhere U.S.A.

My mother is one of more than 5 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a number that’s expected to triple by 2050. Their care will cost the nation 203 billion dollars this year and will rise with warp speed when baby boomers enter the no-man’s-land of memory loss. These unsustainable figures numb the mind in the same way that staggering death tolls from tsunamis and earthquakes do. We hear them and feel they don’t apply. We connect only when we learn the story of a single individual and look into the face of one person suffering their solitary cataclysm.

While it’s painful, I’ve gotten adjusted to watching my mother wander mentally without a roadmap and I find small comfort in observing others on her unit who are worse off. In a poem called Forgetfulness , poet Billy Collins describes them as “those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.” Some days, my mother forgets the man she was married to for seventy years, the love of her life.

While I tire during our visits that have little conversational fodder and require lots of indoor sitting, I was recently humbled by eighty year-old Frank, who visits his wife on the same unit. He comes seven days a week and stays from 8 in the morning till 8 at night. “Generally the time flies by,” he said. “There’s lots to talk about but it gets a little dull by dinnertime.” Though his afflicted wife no longer recognizes him, his love doesn’t waver.

On the memory care unit one day is like another, and most residents don’t have a Frank to watch over them. He is likely there now putting in his twelve-hour day. Dressed in his farmer dungarees and ironed plaid shirt, he pushes the wheelchair of his silent wife down the hall while keeping up his end of the conversation. And I am fairly certain that as Frank passes by my mother’s room, she is still packing.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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