Monday, November 9, 2009


"If I get like that, shoot me," said Dov, talking about my latest elder care charge, "V" Okay, you're all thinking, "Hey, wait! I thought Varda was a writer."

Well, yes and no. I'm a writer, but my career fortunes rise and fall and sometimes, I swallow down my pride and take work that has nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with paying the bills. I've cleaned houses, watched babies, baked cakes, and watched the elderly. If I had my druthers, I'd never leave my keyboard, but it's an imperfect world.

The truth is there are two ages I really like: newborns, and the really old. Newborns don't care much about impressing their handlers, ditto, the elderly. There's something really attractive about that kind of honesty. Newborns are awe-inspiring for their potential, and the elderly inspire awe for the breadth and depth of their experience and knowledge.

At any rate, I have a genuine fondness for old people, and lucky for me, they seem to like me back. I now have a reputation as an A1 elder care person and I'm always being offered new positions. When my writing work is bringing in the big bucks (yeah, right), I can turn down these opportunities, but right now, I cannot.

So it was that I got a call one day from a guy looking for someone who could watch his mother who has been diagnosed with dementia. As he fleshed out the details, I had a feeling I knew the identity of the lady in question. I asked for her name, and sure enough, it was V. I told V's son, "This is a real coincidence, because I was V's neighbor for a few years and we were close friends. I'm sorry to hear about your mother, but I can't think of a better situation than to have me, her dear friend, take charge of her care."

So it was that I began the heartbreaking job of witnessing V's decline. V is a highly intelligent woman, attractive and looking much younger than her years. But V is a bit of a character, always was. So is her husband, L. Maybe that's why it took so long to diagnose V's dementia.

At any rate, somehow, I am able to understand what V is trying to express, even when she is casting about for phrases and substituting words that mean nothing like what she is trying to say. There is an unbelievable rapport between us and I have to admit that I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from being able to grant her the gift of understanding. The truth is, I don't find it much harder understanding V's speech than understanding the pre-speech of my children back in the days when they couldn't speak but ached to be understood. I was always there to provide them with that commodity.

There are other similarities between being with my new charge and spending time with infants. When my babies were small, I'd be so immersed in their worlds that I found myself mimicking their speech patterns. The same is true of spending time with V. I come home from work and find myself using word substitutions and speaking out of context. It's kind of frightening, actually. I have pointed it out to my husband and he agrees: I'm in a state of dementia for at least 10 minutes after I leave V.

Maybe this is related to the fact that I was big into drama classes as a teen and acted in any production that came my way. I still have my book on the Stanislavski Method. I can feel myself straining so hard during the five hours I care for V, trying to understand her every verbal nuance. I guess, at a certain point, I merge and become one with V. The scary part is worrying I'll get stuck and won't be able to make it back.

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