Waiting on Memory

A caregiver fights Alzheimer’s disease with empathy and little white lies

| January / February 2008

The third time this morning that Eloise asks about Barbara, I tell her a new lie. The old lie, that Barbara is at work and can’t be reached right now, is not working. So I tell Eloise that I’m going to go out to the front desk and call Barbara. I walk out of the room and stand by the threshold of the door, just out of view. Then, as I count slowly to 60, I think about what to do next.

“Okay,” I tell Eloise when I come back in. “I just called Barbara.” I watch her face change from tense to tranquil, as if someone had flipped a switch. She unhunches her bony shoulders. I hear her take a deep breath. “Barbara is out of town,” I tell her. “But I talked to Tom.”

“Oh yes, Tom,” Eloise says. She remembers her son-in-law. This makes the call real for her.

“Tom says that Barbara is out of town at a conference,” I tell Eloise, making it up as I go along. “She’ll be gone for a few days but she promises to come see you the moment she gets home.” Eloise understands that her daughter works, that she has a career. She knows about out-of-town conferences. She is satisfied.

“You are so good to me,” she says. I wonder.

But I don’t have much time to ponder personal ethics this morning. Anxiety is in the air. I think sometimes that mood is contagious, that residents spread nervousness and unease among each other like sniffles. Whatever the etiology, Eloise is not the only one who’s jittery today. Marianne, generally calm and composed, needs my attention. She is pacing, dressed in her usual professional woman clothes, carrying her handbag.