Response to Washington Post Alzheimer's Article

  • Today's Washinton Post describes just how far our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has come in the last decade. In “Silver Bells: For 20 Alzheimer’s Patients, the Best Christmas Present Is Tied Up in the Past,” Post writer Tamara Jones tells of a senior facility in Washington D.C. and the wonderful holiday cheer a staff worker named Nadine Harris is providing for her residents.

    Nadine Harris remembers something I, too, remember: a time when dementia patients were restrained, drugged or verbally abused to bring them “back to reality.” When my dad became a dementia patient, I instinctively knew I had to get into his world. Dad, as he was the day before, was gone for good. Dad, as he was not, was all we had. We were going to make the best of it.
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    I was berated by a psychiatrist for “playing [dad's] game” and not trying to bring him back. I knew in my heart my dad couldn’t come into the so-called real world that the rest of us inhabit. I refused to abuse my dad by trying to make him do what he couldn’t do, so I joined him in his world, and we related that way for ten years, until his death. I defied the doctors and made them angry. But, I wouldn’t budge.

    I’m please to say that, about five years after this incident with the overbearing psychiatrist, another psychiatrist said to me, “You know exactly what to do. Where did you learn that?”

    What can you do but laugh? I didn’t have to learn that. It was instinct. I listened with my heart. That is what Nadine Harris does. She listens with her heart, loves these people she helps, and makes their celebrations a work of art.

    She has her ladies and gentlemen dressed up for Christmas. They are joyful, remembering things from when life was good. No, not just remembering them, she has them reliving them. That is what it means to reminiscence. It’s a step beyond just remembering. Nadine Harris is giving them back the joyful Christmas experiences of their past. She happily encourages them to be in whatever decade their minds tell them they are living. Because that is their truth.

    Christmas was very important to my mother. She loved to celebrate, loved to decorate, was the ultimate hostess. Years ago, when severe arthritis and dementia put her in a nursing home, it was late autumn. I knew I had to make her room as much like her apartment as possible by Christmas.

    So up went all her favorite decorations – some from when I was a child. Especially important to her was her nativity scene. Each year, for all seven years she was there, I put up the same decorations. Each year, when someone commented on her beautiful nativity scene, she would tell the visitor how it was antique, how she’d had it since she was a child. Each year, I would smile inside, remembering when I bought that for her at the Sears store about ten years before she went into the nursing home. She’d picked it out of a catalog. But, I held my tongue. It was an antique. That was her truth. I wouldn’t have challenged that for the world.

  • My mother-in-law, too, loved her Christmas decorations. There was a huge string of letters that spelled out M - E - R - R - Y C - H - R - I - S - T - M - A - S. It had once hung on her mantle. I would fasten it, with poster putty and two-sided tape and wire, to her wall above her bed. I put the toilet paper roll Santa that she had gotten at a church sale right next to her bed. I put her angels on her dresser. I put her pretty Christmas dress on her, and we’d walk down the hall to visit my mother. We’d look at the tree in the sitting room and all the decorations on the doors. We’d talk about whatever Christmas she was remembering at the time. I remembered it with her.
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    When I sat with all of my elders, we told Christmas stories. And whatever the stories were, they were true. We wove tales that were combinations of their childhood memories, their teen years, their early married years and their imaginations. And I defy anyone to say they were not 100 percent true. If the stories existed in the minds of my loved ones, then they were true enough to suit me.

    Nadine Harris knows how wonderful her charges feel dressed up. She knows how to help them enjoy the gifts they are – or are not - getting. She helps them talk about the people they have loved and their fond Christmas memories that they are reliving. She becomes part of their truth.

    Thank God research has finally caught up with the heart of this daughter and the heart of Nadine Harris, this wonderful woman who helps dementia patients celebrate Christmas past, present and future. Tamara Jones wrote an important story. It’s a story that will help readers understand that Alzheimer’s patients can find joy, if we help them.

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Published On: December 19, 2006