The Animal Lady Comes to the Alzheimer’s Unit

The aides are gathering the old people in the lounge to see the Animal Lady, who stops by my mother’s Alzheimer’s unit with a different pet every month. I am sitting beside mother, who is craning her neck to see. “Look,” I say. “She’s going to talk about ferrets.”

The woman tells us about the habits of the long, skinny creature, what he eats, where he lives. She bribes the quick brown furry mammal with food to perform tricks and then asks the old folks if they have questions.

“Who takes the ferret swimming?”

“Where are the ferret’s children?”

“Who belongs to that ferret?”

“They’re such wonderful questions!” the Animal Lady exclaims jubilantly. She answers them. Then she brings the ferret around so we can pet it.

Mother never liked our own dogs, but when the ferret comes close, scuttling up the arm of his owner, Mother bravely reaches out her hand and pets him. When one of the aides gets up and waltzes with the Animal Lady, Mother giggles. When the Lady gives a quiz at the end of the show Mother’s hand shoots up. She correctly answers the question: “What do we feed ferrets?”

The Animal Lady’s final question: “Do you like this ferret?”

“Yes,” Mother shouts. She knows that’s the right answer. “Yes!” She crows with happiness.

Later, the aide leads mother and several other patients to the elevator. The aide is wearing a large yellow button: SMILE: GOD LOVES YOU! The residents, with their walkers, look like slow, gentle elephants whose knees are slipping down. From the line Mother gaily waves to me.

I am thinking how plucky she is.

I Argue With Myself

But climbing the steps alone to meet her in her second floor unit, I begin to feel despair. There is a real sense in which I don’t have a mother any more. I am the mother and she has become like a child. It feels more melancholy, sometimes, to have this kind of mother than not to have a mother at all.

What kind of a God would allow this to happen to me? Suddenly I feel ashamed of myself. It is mother I should be thinking about. This is her life. This is the road she has been called to walk, and because I am her daughter, I am walking beside her.

With longing, I recall what we might be doing if she didn’t have Alzheimer’s: going to the symphony, taking walks together, shopping. But when she didn’t have Alzheimer’s, we didn’t see one another very often. I see her now because I am helping to care for her.

As I climb the steps to the second floor, where I will meet mother, I remind myself grimly that this is not merely a repetitious, grim slog. I am on a spiritual journey. This thought has often saved me from despair. In my mind’s eye I see a rocky, lonely path over a high mountain. I understand that what I have learned on this journey I probably could have learned no other way.

As my mother steps from the elevator, I smile at her, though I don’t feel like smiling. As we walk together toward her room, I hang for dear life onto the realization that this may be the best chance I will ever have to acquire spiritual disciplines like hospitality, patience, prayer, and letting go.

After all, I am no longer the center of mother’s attention. Mother is now the center of mine. I am learning to learn how to think about her first, how to define myself as her caregiver. I am reaching out to her friends and building a community around her. Call that hospitality. I am learning patience, too, as I laboriously bundle her into my car and sit for hours in doctor’s offices with her. And I am learning how to pray. I am learning the kind of petition a person makes when there’s no hope that things will get better. I am learning how to meditate, how to wait, how to let go.

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 the last decade.


Jeanne's web site:

About the Author

Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D.

Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D., is a professor of English at the University of Delaware.

You are reading

The Geography of Memory

Alzheimer's As A Test of Faith

How could a good God allow this kind of suffering?

Can You Care for a Parent Whose Beliefs You Have Rejected?

You may have more in common than you think.

Does It Pay To Care For a Parent With Dementia?

By connecting with her I began to understand myself in a whole new way.