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We Can't Forget the 'Lost' Generation of Seniors With Dementia During COVID-19

The most beautiful smile isn’t always so beautiful. Dementia does that. The first time I met “Elle” she was staring at me with a blank expression on her face. It was my first day back at the long-term care home I’ve casually worked at over the last two years. During COVID, our home locked down our units, and here I was — fresh on this unit. As I walked into Elle’s room at quarter past 7 to get her ready for the day, she looked at me with this growing fire in her eyes.

This fire I speak of, it’s common in individuals with dementia during “off” moments. It’s not the good sort of fire that signifies determination, it’s the type that strikes fear into your soul. I saw this fire a lot when I worked on the special care unit at this home. It’s always indicative of knowing you’re about to be hit, choked, head-butted, stomped on and pinned down, or in the case of one particular resident — high-kicked in the throat. Typically when I notice
this fire I walk away and re-approach later. And if I’m lucky when I reappear, the resident is back to being themselves.

Dementia is like that. It steals your time and steals who you are. But I believe individuals who have dementia are still in there. You see glimpses, whether that be in their dancing feet when you sing a song they like or when you hold their hand to calm them down as they talk to the “angels” circling around you. Asking if you see them. I always wish I could be truthful when I tell them I can see them — but sometimes little lies like that can be justified. And the other moments, when their hallucinations are interjected with moments of clarity where they tell me that I’m too good for them, and that I must be a good girl for spoiling them.

Then there are the funny moments — those are my favorite. “Mae” is a resident who mucks cereal like it’s her day job. She has a terrific wardrobe. In fact, if I dress her in outfits she doesn’t like she will not tell me in the moment. Instead, she will wait for me to leave, and then she will remove her safety alarm, because of course she has figured out how the clip works, and will change into something more pleasing.

Mae is a firecracker. She is hilarious. She is sharp. She often tells me she’s “weak as a kitten” while holding my arm and dramatically laying the back of her hand across her forehead; all while she prances next to me in high heels and thigh-high stockings. She dresses to impress. So much so, that every evening when I get Mae ready for bed, I have to convince her to let me put pajamas on her. I always tell her how beautiful her pajamas are.

One night in particular, I told Mae that I would love a nighttime wardrobe just like hers. She looked at me, and without hesitation asked what I wear to bed (may or may not be a beer shirt) and quickly deduced from my answer that I must not have a boyfriend. But don’t worry, Mae then “comforted” me. She told me that I was smart, that it was good I was single, because of course all men are trouble. Mae is my number one fan.

Now back to Elle, she is beautiful. Her smile is sunshine — a beam that hits you and travels from head to toe. And she is funny. She can no longer speak in full sentences — but she thrives in the most beautiful way. After my first encounter with Elle she was placed on palliative-care orders; I truly believed she was going to die. During COVID when residents are placed on palliative orders, they are allowed to have a single family member visit at a time. Her children visited day after day, the two would switch out to take turns. And something changed in Elle, something shifted. Her fire left; and the kind, gentle and authentic soul she is re-emerged.

She began eating again, first, as a total feed. She then began drinking again with assistance. I vividly recall feeding her and another resident simultaneously, and it would seem according to Elle — I was “too slow.” She impatiently tapped her plate to get my attention that she wanted more and it was in that moment I knew she would be OK. I realized that Elle was more resilient than I ever could ever have believed. Shortly thereafter, she began feeding herself. Elle’s beautiful family, her loving children, I truly believe made a difference in her recovery, reminding her of who she is and why life is worth living.

It’s those moments, the sweet inspiring ones, the funny ones, the heartbreaking ones, that make me want to fiercely protect my residents at all times. During COVID, we have all felt lonely, bored, restless, unfulfilled, the list goes on — but we must remember, our residents are trapped. At times trapped in specific moments in time — worried that their car is in the shop, wondering where their wives are, or heartbreakingly looking for their children or spouses who have died young.

I understand with the economy reopening the desire to go out and socialize — but these individuals were the backbone of our society, and they are slowly becoming a lost generation. They built our economy after the Second World War. They survived multiple recessions, many having lived through the Great Depression. In the case of my grandparents, they fled war-torn Germany in search of a better life. They survived labor camps and poverty, and they shed blood, sweat and tears to create a new life in Canada.

Our grandparents have lived through far more change than any of us could possibly fathom — and as I told my grandmother when she pleaded with me not to work as a personal support working during COVID, I work for her. My quirky and funny grandmother. Standing 5′ 7” (typically head-to-toe in purple with matching shades), she is authentic to her core and the most independent person I have ever met. She is from this lost generation.

I am not the most proud of my generation; millennials get a lot of flak — and during the reopening of the economy we should not all be defined by the ignorance of the few (or many). I just cannot wrap my mind around how having a party and socializing is worth risking our elderly. I understand ignorance and maliciousness are separate entities, but they most definitely overlap — and in cases like this, it is showcasing what I struggle with most in maintaining relationships. The lack of regard for others has always been what makes me walk away — and it never ceases to disappoint me, but at this point doesn’t shock me.

We are all struggling with COVID in the outside world, but Elle, Mae and my grandmother — they are struggling more than you can possibly imagine. They cannot quite grasp the potential severity of this virus. Those of you touting herd immunity as being our savior — maybe look up viral-shifts, reinfections and consider the toll on our health care system.

Those of you touting our economy as being more important — what does that say about the value of our elderly? Those individuals so vital in creating our society. Please consider Mae, consider Elle — sweet Elle, who cried in my arms last week about wanting to go home, and consider your grandparents. They are the most deserving of our love and compassion.

Respectfully,

Your average over-caffeinated dog-mama

Getty image via Yaraslau Saulevich