With Alzheimer's, The Concept of Ownership Takes on a New Meaning

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I remember my first visit to see Mom after she was taken to a hospital for a geriatric psychiatric evaluation to determine whether she had Alzheimer's. The hospital ward was split into two secure units and assignments were based on the severity of dementia that the patients were exhibiting.


    Mom was initially placed in the area for the most severe, although I'm not sure if that was due to whether they had the only open bed, or a policy of trying to determine where she fell on the spectrum. Because of her weakened state due to her limited lung power, she remained in bed most of the time. When Dad, my cousin, and I visited, we would just pull chairs around Mom's bed.

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    During that particular visit, Mom's roommate was not in the room. A few minutes after our arrival, another resident, Harold, shuffled into the room and began to climb into the roommate's bed. Harold then noticed the drawers that were by the side of the bed, and began opening them to explore what the contents might be. At this point, my cousin decided to go get an aide in order to escort Harold out of the room.


    That's the first time I realized that personal boundaries related to another person's possessions are often gone in a person with dementia. Sure enough, when Mom was finally placed in a nursing home in an Alzheimer's unit, some of her items began to disappear (like the TV remote control).


    This memory was brought back to the forefront when watching a clip from the movie The Savages. Laura Linney's character, Wendy, becomes incensed that a red pillow that she purchased for her father, who was placed in a nursing home with vascular dementia, is missing. After not getting any resolution about the pillow's location when talking to the nurse on duty, Wendy turns the corner and sees a wheelchair-bound resident clutching the pillow.


    Wendy determinedly walks over to the resident and pulls the pillow out of the resident's hands. "That's not your pillow," Wendy retorts. "I bought it for my father." The resident becomes agitated by Wendy's action and begins crying out loudly.


    What Wendy didn't understand is that possessions often go missing or suddenly appear when you're dealing with a person with dementia. I'm not sure whether the reason is because a resident becomes attracted to it (which is what happened with my grandmother, who hoarded sparkly buttons) or because of the grand organizational shuffle at the nursing home in trying to keep the residents organized. For instance, my mother somehow ended up with a rust-colored jacket. I'm not sure if she snagged it from another resident or whether the nursing home staff accidently gave it to her. But I know it wasn't originally hers because Mom would never have worn that color (based on her many years in merchandising and what colors looked good on her).


    And then there's the challenge of negotiating if two residents end up claiming the same item. One day I walked into Mom's room and found a doll sitting on top of the television set. The origin of that doll, a rotund monkey holding a peeled banana and looking off to the side like he wanted to make sure no one saw him eating this treat, was never clear.


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    I couldn't tell if it was the roommate's or whether Mom won it in bingo. All I knew was that both my mom and the roommate claimed that doll. So in the spirit of equal opportunity, that doll remained on top of the television set where both roommates could see it. Eventually, Mom's roommate died, so Mom ended up with sole possession of that little doll.


    When Mom died in September, the nursing home staff packed away all of her personnel belongings. A few weeks later, Dad and I stole ourselves to go through these bags of Mom's things. What should I find but that monkey? I decided to keep that mischievous-looking doll as a memory of Mom and also of the way possessions tend to move around in the nursing home and often end up in unexpected new homes.

Published On: January 28, 2008