Love and Lipstick in Dementialand

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.

13 thoughts on “Love and Lipstick in Dementialand

  1. Thank you. I’m 44 with early-onset of Alzheimer’s, in around my 5th year since diagnosed. My mom will be 82 this April and has Alzheimer’s/Dementia. My father passed away a year ago today. What you said about love is so true. That’s all that matters. My mom doesn’t remember me some days, as I’m the youngest of 7 and she doesn’t remember my dad’s passing nor my brother’s passing back in 2005. But that’s ok, we don’t remind her, why make her relive such pain, she all ready lived through that pain once. We keep her close, hold her hand, love her and be there for her no matter what. Memories fade each day for myself as well, but fortunately for me I will never forget my mom of course, but the sadness that she forgets her children and husband is hard, as well as her own parents that passed a very long time ago. We tend to sympathize with ourselves of the loss we endure each time we see someone we love that no longer remembers us. But it’s truly about the person with the disease. What they’ve lost – which is far more than we have. Thank you for your article.

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    1. Thanks for posting, Mel. ((I posted a reply here the night before you posted this reply. did you follow me here? If so, how did that happen, did it post on FaceBook or Twitter or something?)) So many technical things I don’t understand in digital world LOL 😀 — Tru

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    2. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for continuing to be an advocate! It is because of the openness of people like that you that others are learning more and more about this disease–hopefully the future is filled with more understanding and empathy for those who have dementia.

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  2. This post really tore at my heart. I see things like this a lot. You are so right, if we put half as much energy into loving people as we do in trying to destroy them, this world would be a lot better place to live in. God bless.

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  3. Dr. Eshbaugh- this is so beautiful. Completely sad as tears are still running, but beautiful. Thank you for this blog! I can’t believe I haven’t read before.


  4. I agree. “On most days, I am more in awe of the love that exists in Dementialand than the sadness than inhibits it.”

    … & if we (both patient & others) did not process the grief involved then we would have much more difficulty recognizing and appreciating the moments of joy. Can’t “stuff” it, … but LIVE each moment (even the hard ones like when I wake & do not recognize the man in bed beside me).

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  5. Elaine,
    I have been reading your blogs and they have been very informative and eye opening for me regarding Dementia. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences. I have a much better understanding now and look forward to your future blogs to educate me further.

    Grandpa Bill


  6. Well Elaine you brought tears to my eyes with this story. Such love. I have that love for my brother who is leaving the mid-stage of dementia and going into the final-stage. I have saddness for my brother, but also an overwhelming love for him. It is sad when the caregiver leaves before their loved one. An excellent post.


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