Friday, April 26, 2013

Alzheimer's, a visit & some exercises

Yesterday, Lori Yancura and I took our small class of three to the Hi`olani Alzheimer's wing of the Kāhala Nui Retirement Home in Honolulu.  They call what they do "memory support," though of course there are few memories left to support. Our course is almost over, so it seemed time to meet some of the people about whom our literature and Family Resources essays were written, those behind the statistics, the sentences long and short, the words whole or incomplete.  Preston Kim, the head nurse, showed us around; we saw the long corridors, the lanai where some residents are able still to garden, the dining area, and finally the common area, where residents had been playing a game called "horse race." We entered a "serenity room," featuring "stars" on the ceiling, and a slide show (not on) to calm residents during sundowning periods. Several residents sat in a circle, broken by a large glass area in which a parrot named Queenie lives; Queenie chattered quite a bit and at one point knocked on the class with her(?) beak. Most of the residents were taciturn: the Colonel who told me he wasn't a colonel any more, because he's not in the Army.  His lips quivered with the effort to make words move from his mind into the short space between us. Another vet (not from The War, he told me) promptly got up and left the room, leaving his bag of chips behind. A woman eating her chips alternated between saying she didn't want them, holding them in front of her to look closely, then chewing slowly. A man called Papa, incredibly knock-kneed, entered with a walker, his left arm bruised from hand to elbow. He did not use this arm when he hit the yellow "ballooney ball" back to the caregiver. A woman who was clearly the trouble maker poked her neighbor, later teasing him with the bright yellow ballooney ball, before tossing it to the young woman in green uniform. Then there was the talkative woman, seated next to Lori, who carried on a conversation for the entire 40 minutes we sat in the group. Lori called Kapena Landgraf over, thinking that she was at UH at the same time as Kapena's grandfather, about whom he wrote his M.A. thesis.  Kapena noted later that his heart sank when he heard the woman lose her focus on memories of her life and lapse--repeatedly--into stanzas of the UH alma mater, stanzas that she couldn't finish. Residents of the home are overwhelmingly Asian, a cultural and economic marker in Hawai`i for sure, but no matter their wealth or culture, they are typical (in the dispassionate form of the word) Alzheimer's patients.


When next I write at length about Alzheimer's--and it seems there is more to write, if not about my experience with my mother--I will devote part of the book to an examination of Alzheimer's and the avant-garde.  But I hope not only to write critically about that relationship, but to offer exercises that can be used in workshops of writers and caregivers and family members to illustrate the effect of the illness on language.  Let me note a few of these exercises here:

--You are looking for the refrigerator in your house, but you can't remember where it is. The word "refrigerator" has also disappeared from your mind.  Write a brief passage about your search.

--Assume that more language has gone away; not only have you forgotten the word for "refrigerator" and the lay-out of your house, but you've also lost the ability to form a complete sentence. Write a passage in which you begin sentences, but get lost in others as you go.

--Take this last passage and erase most of the words, as well as parts of words, until you have only a few fragments of language on the page.  (B.S. Johnson's Rosetta Stanton is a model for this exercise.)

There will be many more.


Indigo Velvet said...

I am sure that was a very interesting experience for your students. These are the hard things in life, the things that stare us in the eyes from somewhere in the shadow of the future, and the things that we have to justify living for. After all, we all pay the same price for life in the end. Beautiful thoughts here, Susan--I hope your students were really able to appreciate it all.

Amparo said...

This is cool!