I used to visit a particular nursing home frequently. I often saw a woman with dementia and her husband. She had been at the facility for several years. He lived down the road at a retirement community but spent most of his days with her at the nursing home.
Her makeup was always perfect. Foundation. Lipstick complete with liner. Blush (or rouge, as I’ve learned it is called by older women). It was a bit dramatic for my taste, to be honest, but applied with professional precision.
Her hair was always matted in the back because she was in and out of bed all day. But never a flaw in her makeup.
She was non-verbal and had what I called the dementia gaze. She was looking at you but not looking at you. I often watched her husband assist her with meals. Although it appeared she had no clue what was on the spoon, her husband made sure she didn’t eat anything she didn’t like–although someone might think she would not have known the difference. He’d say things like, “I’m not giving you any broccoli. I know you hate your broccoli, don’t you?” It took him forever to feed her, but he’d always comment that he was retired and had nowhere else to be.
It didn’t matter to him that she didn’t seem to know who he was. He was there for every meal. He chatted with her constantly, sometimes telling her awful jokes that were often a bit off-color. He talked about their family. One day he brought in a picture their granddaughter had drawn. He was unfazed by his wife’s apparent lack of response.
I saw them in passing for several months. I typically exchanged pleasantries with the husband. One day he told me they were celebrating an anniversary. “You know it’s a special occasion,” he told me, “because she’s wearing her red lipstick instead of her pink.”
I had been curious about the perfect makeup, to say the least, so this peaked my attention. He added, “You know, I’m her makeup artist.”
He told me the story. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a decade earlier. Always a beautiful woman (and never seen without makeup in public), the thought of not being able to apply her own foundation, rouge, and lipstick was terrifying. He told her that was no big deal…he would learn to apply her makeup. And he did. I told him that I’d let him put makeup on me anytime, and he seemed flattered.
Life had another curve ball in store for this couple. He was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery to remove a large mass from his pelvis. Sadly, he never woke up. She lived several more years. It’s not unusual that the caregiver passes away before the person with dementia, but this situation was really difficult for me to process. I hated going to the nursing home and seeing her without her makeup.
But I don’t think she missed her husband. You can’t miss your husband if you don’t remember you had one.
I didn’t mean for this post to be so sad, really. What I want you to pull out of their story is not sadness or tragedy (although there’s certainly a great deal of sadness and tragedy here); it’s LOVE. Focus on the love. The world would be a better place if everyone was loved like she was loved.
I’ve seen love in Dementialand that I’ve seen few other places. We continue to love people who don’t know who we are. Our spouses and parents view us as strangers. If someone doesn’t know who are you, can they still love you? Or does it even matter? Because you love them anyway. On most days, I am more in awe of the love that exists in Dementialand than the sadness than inhibits it.