While I generally use this blog to tell stories of my experience with Parkinson’s, I had a chance meeting with an elderly woman recently. While it was a sad experience, it also provided me some appreciation that I want to share.
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River, our Shihtzu whose already comical character is enhanced by her exaggerated overbite and single tooth sticking out even when her is mouth closed, tugged on her leash as we made our way home. We had been out for a walk, and she knew getting home meant getting a treat. Even the promise of food though didn’t stop her from sniffing and wagging her tail to greet the woman with a walker standing near the front entrance to our apartment building.
We live in a building where suites typically come up for sale only when someone dies, or they are moved into a care home. Many of the residents live alone, so we try to engage them in some small way when we see them. As a result, we recognize most of the people that live here.
This woman, I had not seen before. She had short grey wavy hair. If it weren’t 7:00am, I would have thought she had just come back from the hairdressers. Her eyes were full of life, her lipstick was fresh, and she was dressed immaculately in a white sweater and white slacks. Despite using a walker, she bent easily to pet River.
But something was off. She had been knocking on the plain brown door that is used only for postal delivery. It is the door to the room where mail is sorted and inserted into mail slots for the individual suites.
I asked her if I could help. She looked at me not understanding, so I spoke a little louder but again didn’t connect.
She said, “No one is answering. I know they are in there.” Pointing at the door. “The young ladies that have taken my husband away.”
Louder yet, I asked her if she lived in the building, but she was in another mental place.
She continued, “I called the police, but they wouldn’t come to help. I know how to deal with them. I work with juvenile delinquents at the jail. I know how to deal with them if they would just open the door. Can you help me?”
Thinking she must have wandered away from one of the care homes nearby, I gestured for her to come into the lobby and take a seat. I offered a hand, but she maneuvered her walker, and turned herself around and into the chair on her own. Again, seeing River, she reached into the basked of her walker and pulled out a stuffed dog. “This is my dog. Kids love to play with her.” She smiled.
I smiled back not quite clear if she was joking.
I asked her a few times for her name and where she lived. She asked me to speak louder and pointed at her hearing aid. She only had one, and it was taped to her glasses, and I wasn’t sure if it was properly inserted in her ear.
Her appearance had me convinced someone had helped her prepare to go out and would be looking for her. Not knowing what else to do, I called the police. They had no reports of anyone missing but would send someone by. They asked for a description. I felt rude talking about her height, weight, and age while she looked back at me. She was thin without appearing fragile. Maybe 5'2" and 110 pounds. Her narrow face was wrinkled, and she had a pinkness to her cheeks. I gave her age at about 90. I thought she might be older, but I didn’t see any harm in taking off a few years.
While we waited, she retold the story of her husband being taken away, and how she wished the police would help her. I smiled back at her, hiding the frustration I felt in my inability to communicate.
At the moment a police car was pulling up to the front of the building, Gary, the president of our strata council, walked into the lobby. He smiled at me, then looked over and in a near yell, said “Hello Shirley”.
She looked back at him with no recognition. I shared my story of finding her outside. Turns out she had also been wondering in the parking garage at 5:00am and had been taken her back to her suite. She didn’t leave home too often, which is why I had never met her.
The police officer came in, and we brought her up to date. Gary had contacted Shirley’s son after the first incident that morning. He was due to arrive in a few hours to take her to a care home. She was ready for one. I learned she was 93 and while she was obviously able to look after herself in many ways, her mind was playing tricks on her.
Gary kindly offered that he and his wife would look after Shirley until her son arrived. The police officer asked Shirley a few times if she was ok with that. She eventually got a note pad out and wrote down her questions for Shirley to read. Why hadn’t I thought of that? She was deaf, not blind.
Shirley understood the notes but remained hesitant to go with Gary. I suggested that she would follow a police officer, so she offered to accompany her to Gary’s. With that Shirley reached down and gave River one more pet before standing up. River had been laying down beside her feet offering comfort in the only way she knew.
As they walked away, Shirley began telling the police officer about the young girls that took her husband.
I later learned that Shirley did work in the jail system with juveniles 60 years earlier. Sadly, her husband had died 8 years ago.
This short experience touched me. A woman that was still vibrant in so many ways had lost her independence. Her son and other family members were experiencing loss. What sadness he must be feeling having to take her into care.
I am also able to imagine Shirley living a full life, and that she has touched many people. Despite this being the only time I met Shirley, I like to think she made the world a better place.