Doris was a telephone operator in the days when an operator was more than an automated recording. These days, between hearing loss and words that don’t come out the way she wants them to, the last thing she does is talk on the phone. She was once a gossip and the matriarch of a charismatic Polish family. She was the life of the party, mothered four children, including a set of twins, was married to Eddie for more than 50 years, and told people that she was 29 years old until she turned 70. One story Doris loved to tell was of when her falsies popped out of her bathing suit and Eddie swam out in the lake to save her fake boobs…and her ego.
Doris could drink most people under the table at one time in her life. Her beverage of choice is still a vodka tonic. As she would pull into a liquor store, she used to say that she needed to stop for her Vitamin V—it was all very charming. Those were the glamour days of alcoholism. As dementia sets in, the bottles of Absolut in her refrigerator are the last thing she feels she has any control over.
Sometimes Doris runs her hands along her arms, embarrassed by how time has taken away her porcelain skin, instead leaving her with a dark-spotted, wrinkly, paper-thin coat as a reminder of her age. Her mind goes and her stories fade. Once a master of socializing, the last remnants of her personality lay in her smile—the way she laughs. Her daughter struggles with the same feelings of guilt that she herself once dealt with when her own mother was struggling with the debilitation of dementia.
Having lost her husband, her hearing, and now as her mind evades her, Doris finds solace in Sophie, the little fluffy female dog she affectionately calls “her son.” Some days are light and she seems easy-going, other days are grey, full of shadows and confusion. All days however, are marked by monotony as she waits for death. Once the self proclaimed “queen of shopping,” she now chooses recluse, adamantly fighting anyone who tries to get her to leave the safety of her apartment. When she’s ready for bed, she’s ready for bed and it is not worth an argument, even if it is only 4:30 in the afternoon.
In a society that is in such a hurry to leave Doris behind, she is refreshing. Between her twisted vocabulary and distaste for her hearing aids, she is ever-present and perceptive. Though most of her moments don’t live on to be remembered, the majority of Doris’ time is spent peacefully unable to recall the past or contemplate the future. She relishes in the moment, picking leaves from the pool, finding every speck of dirt on the floor, and enjoying the food she eats, the movies she watches, or the nap that she fades in and out of throughout the day. She cannot remember any stories, but her personality persists, unknowingly charming the pants off her exercise class, her hairdresser, or anyone else she spends time with. If in one moment she is feisty, the only thing to do is wait another moment and her response is usually a smile. She criticizes as a habit, but there is no malice. Doris is concerned only for her family’s wellbeing and if she remembers having a bad attitude, she will apologize. She may not remember what she just came from doing, but most of the time she is grateful. Her moments hold the value of the present. From a sheepish girl feeding her pills to the dog, to a frustrated old woman trying to figure out whether it is five am or five pm, her eyes tell the story that her words no longer can—these are the moments of a woman who spent 84 years watching this world change and is starting to forget all about it.
A day-by-day documentation of Doris' acclimation into assisted living care
Day 13. It's hard to see Debbie go. Doris loves her daughter. She may direct all her anger towards Debbie, but she also looks forward to her every visit. January 28, 2014. Sarasota, FL
Day 3. Doris did great in exercise class today. She's getting to know her neighbors and reluctantly venturing out of her apartment. I'll take reluctant ventures over frustrated solitude any day. Life is like that. No matter how young or old you are, you can always be the new gal. January 17, 2014. Sarasota, FL
Day 8. Dramatic elevator pose. #getmeouttahere. January 22, 2014. Sarasota, FL
Day 512. My grandmother is in a memory care unit with 30 other people. It's a strange place that often smells of stale pee. After my mother and I, and the nurses, there aren't many visitors. When people do come, they go straight for their family member and ignore the rest of the residents who are desperately trying to grasp at these strangers for a moment of attention. We as visitors, as "young" people, try to pretend that this is not a reality and that it has nothing to do with us. July 9, 2015
Day 538. This is Deuce and he has been taking care of people all his life. Here he embraces Doris, who is having a meltdown, while firefighters and paramedics try to calm an old man in an uncontrollable fit of rage. Everyone in the memory ward is at a varying stage of memory loss and they often react to one another's energy, like a ripple effect. Deuce played a game with Doris until she was too tired to persist, then she fell into his arms and he hugged her. July 12, 2015. Sarasota, FL
Day 18. Doris is not happy. Her new room is beautiful, but she thinks it's small and there is only ONE window. I guess this is all part of the process, but it is tough to see her struggle, especially when things don't seem so bad. February 1, 2014. Sarasota, FL
Day 24. Doris is happy in her new home. She is developing a routine which we have learned is the most important thing to have when you are up against dementia. Plus, her dog Sofie is always by her side. She smiles when I come in each morning and seems to be feeling better with her medication. She's been using a patch that is supposed to help with her memory. It's incredible how much more lucid she seems. February 8, 2014. Sarasota, FL
Day 4. Doris rubs her age spots unconsciously. When she realizes that she's doing it she'll make a comment about how ugly they are. I see them as marks of a life lived. January 18, 2014. Sarasota, FL
Day 10. Doris has been walking the dog about 4x a day, even with the chilly weather. January 24, 2014. Sarasota, FL