The Happiness You Find in Dementialand

Theresa is a resident of a memory care community not far from the town where I live. She is about 70 and has Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve only been to this facility a few times, but I’ve become fascinated with Theresa—because she may be the happiest person I’ve ever met.

The first time I visited the facility, I did a discussion activity and showed the participants photos of vacation destinations (e.g., the Grand Canyon, Wrigley Field, the St. Louis Arch). Every time Theresa saw one of these color photos, she lit up.

“Wow! Honey! That is the most beautiful place I’ve seen!” she would exclaim each and every time I showed a new photo. Several people in the group were asleep and a couple of others appeared to be bored out of their minds, so I appreciated her enthusiasm.

She would talk about how she was going to plan trips to each of these destinations and just couldn’t wait to go sightseeing. Of course, it seemed unlikely that Theresa would be booking flights and hotel rooms in the future, but it would have been cruel for me to point this out. She was having a great time talking about her hypothetical trips.

She even mentioned that she planned to rent a convertible so she could feel the “wind in her body.” After she said this, she closed her eyes for a moment, presumably imagining what this would feel like. She made me want to rent a convertible to feel the “wind in my body.”

I watched Theresa interact with some other residents. One woman was sitting in a wheelchair, slumped to one side, with half her lunch stuck to the front of her shirt.

“Wow! Honey! You look so beautiful today!” exclaimed Theresa. The woman in the wheelchair barely looked up. Theresa walked over and patted her hand.

As I left the facility, she followed me down the hall, telling me how beautiful and fashionable I was. She loved my boots. She loved my hair. She thought I had the prettiest blue eyes. How could I not love her?

She tried to follow me out of the door, and it broke my heart to tell her that she couldn’t go outside. I wished she could follow me around all day just to bolster my self-esteem.

“I’m afraid you have to stay here…because there are some more activities today and they’ll need you there,” I said.

“Oh, now that sounds just so fun. I am so excited!” Theresa responded with a grin. She gave me a hug before walking back down the hallway.

I thought about her the rest of the day. I wasn’t sure if I should pity her or envy her. Sure, she had Alzheimer’s, but she seemed to be living with more joy than I was. Her positive nature forced me to take an inventory of my own attitude. If she could carry around that much zest for life in her limited world, I decided I could do a little bit more laughing and smiling in my own world.

A month later, I was back at the same facility. Theresa wasn’t able to participate in my activity because she was getting her hair done at the nursing home beauty shop. I happened to pass the beauty shop and noticed her sitting in the chair as a hair stylist was taking out her rollers. I walked in to say hello.

I don’t think Theresa recognized me from my previous visit, but that didn’t matter. She could not have been more excited to see me if I were the Pope. There’s something about someone jumping out their chair with joy when you walk into a room that just makes your day.

“Wow! Honey!” she said. “You look so young and pretty! You are perfect!”

I struck up a conversation with the hair stylist, who said she wished all of her clients were like Theresa. She was just finishing up Theresa’s hair, and Theresa was grinning as she looked at her reflection in the mirror.

“Wow! Honey!” Theresa exclaimed. “I look like a new woman! I love everything about my new haircut and perm!”

The hairstylist whispered to me that she had not cut or permed Theresa’s hair. In fact, she had only put in six hot rollers.

As I left the facility that day, Theresa again walked me out.

“Goodbye, honey! You’re so good at your job and so pretty!” she yelled as I walked out.

It doesn’t matter that Theresa doesn’t really know who I am. It doesn’t matter that she has no idea what my job even is. And it doesn’t matter that she tells everyone–not just me–that they are pretty.

She’s genuine. She has no ulterior motives. It makes no difference that she may not remember a thing about me after I walk out the door.

She makes my day.