It is 2002. My mother, who is in her late eighties, is losing things. She tells us she has too much stuff. She needs to move to a smaller apartment. My sister and I volunteer to help sort her things and move.
After work, I fly from Philadelphia to Dallas. I find Mother on the second floor of her new AssistedLiving apartment. Her door is unlocked and open. But she’s hunkered down on her couch in the dark.
I kiss her. I switch on the lights and look around. Her beige couch and chairs are arranged attractively, probably the handiwork of my sister Julie, who lives in Dallas. There’s the smell of fresh paint and a slight breeze from the ceiling fan. But the layout is different from mother’s old place. It feels like a movie set. I know her drawers are empty.
Mother blinks as if she’s just waking up. Then shyly, apprehensively, she shows me around.
“What a terrific apartment,” I enthuse, hoping she’ll catch the spirit. “Look at the huge windows! This will be so light!” I hate the bravado in my voice.
I Want to Go Home!
Absent-mindedly, she begins to prowl, lurching from room to room like a wild animal that’s been moved from its natural habitat. I follow her, telling her that I need to go back to her old apartment to box and sort her things.
But she’s skitterish, not focusing. I put my arm around her to anchor her in the Here and Now. “Will you be okay?”
“I’m always okay. When can I go home?”
“This is home.”
She spins around. “This isn’t where I live.”
“You do now.”
“You’re teasing me,” she says in a refrigerated voice.
“Once you live here for a while, you’ll love it.”
“Oh, I will, will I?” She sits down, defiant. “Where are my spoons?”
Where Are My Spoons?
My sister, who lives in Dallas, has already moved the few rudimentary things my mother needs to subsist over the weekend. I start opening one kitchen drawer after another. Eventually I pull out a spoon and hand it to her.
I realize, suddenly, one spoon is not a solution. She is talking about something much bigger. She didn’t know where she was, because everything she owned had moved.
During her following five years of living at Bentley, my mother never entirely mastered the map of her two rooms. We filled her kitchen drawers with her beloved towels and trivets. We positioned her crystal in the cabinets. We lovingly stored her lacy undergarments and special lotions and body washes in her chest of drawers. But she never touched most of it. We were the ones who organized her objects in the spaces; she hadn’t. She couldn’t.
In her old house, after years of living with her objects, she knew in her body where they were. She navigated the spaces and boundaries and objects of that landscape out of habit. When she left that space, she lost her map of connections between her body and her objects. With her impaired memory, she couldn’t quite relocate herself in her new landscape.
Spatial Memory: How We Know Ourselves
What is spatial memory? I didn’t get it till I saw what happened when my mother downsized. But our ability to map and relocate ourselves in relationship to landmarks is one of the most crucial kinds of human knowledge. (http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/asc/Taylor/)
Just knowing in advance that an Alzheimer’s patient might experience spatial disorientation after a move can alert a caretaker to ways of improving her life. Giving my mother a map might have helped. Or giving her repeated and patterned help in finding objects might have reconstruct a connection between her and the things by which she knew herself. I wish I had known that then. But at least I can pass on my knowledge about spatial memory to others who need it.
Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during her last decade.
Find GEOGRAPHY at: http://amzn.to/1kHNpgN
Jeanne's web site: www.JeanneMurrayWalker.com