Stuffed Cats and Real Cats in Dementialand

I once got in a tense argument about whether a stuffed cat was a real cat. For the record, it was a stuffed cat but really it was a real cat.

About ten years ago, I was visiting with a hospice patient on a weekly basis. Linda-not her real name-had vascular dementia (as well as multiple other health conditions) and lived at an assisted living. She was reserved when I first started stopping by, and I had trouble connecting with her.

One day, I notice a stuffed cat sitting on her bed. She sees me looking at it and asks if I like cats. I tell her that I do. She smiles.

“Well,” she says. “You’ll love my Tiger. He is quite a cat.”

I’m not sure if she thinks Tiger was a real cat or not, so I walk over to pet him.

“Be careful,” she warns. “Tiger still has his claws.”

Yep. Linda thinks Tiger is a real cat. I shift gears and start interacting with Tiger as if he is a real cat. In other words, I step into her reality. Linda perks up some, and suddenly we have a connection. I figure out that Tiger is the key to engaging her.

Every time I stop by, I ask about Tiger right after I come in. He’s usually on her bed. Sometimes I pick him up and put him on the windowsill so he can watch the birds. A few times we find a nice sun puddle on the floor for him. One day she mentions that Tiger looks chunkier and accuses me of sneaking him tuna. I confess, and she smiles. I even buy Tiger a toy. Yes, I spend $5 on a toy for a stuffed cat. And Linda is beside herself with excitement, and I’ve forgotten that Tiger isn’t a real, living, breathing feline.

I come by one summer day while her son is visiting. When I ask Linda about Tiger, he rolls his eyes.

He tells me, “I’ve told her time and time again that Tiger has been dead for five years. He got hit by a car on the highway.” Linda looks at him, and then at me. I’m really not sure what to say.

“Actually, Tiger’s okay. He’s right here,” I say tentatively. The son takes a long look at me as I pet Tiger. I’m pretty sure he’s wondering if I’m the biggest idiot he’s ever met.

“You are petting a stuffed cat,” he says. “That’s not a live cat. It’s stuffed.” Let’s just say Linda’s son and I are not on the same page here, and I’m not about to let him break his mother’s heart.

“No, Tiger is a real. Alive and well,” I say. This is awkward. The son is not going to relent, and neither am I. I have now decided I am not going to admit to the son that the cat is stuffed. And once I pick a battle, I’m all in. He glares at me.

“Do you really not know this cat is stuffed? We bought him at Walmart,” he responds. “This is a stuffed cat.” At this point I should take this guy out in the hallway and explain why I am set on insisting Tiger is a real cat, but I don’t think of that at the time.

“Well, Linda knows that Tiger is real, so Tiger is real,” I say. At this point, I have Tiger cradled in my arms. I’m squeezing him tighter and tighter as I get more and more frustrated. If Tiger were alive, I might have suffocated him.

The son stares me down. It’s intense. Linda looks at me, and then at her son. He sighs and walks into the other room. I consider it a victory.

Yogis in Dementialand

Come to hot yoga, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

And I can’t lie. It is fun–in a sort of brutal way that leaves me dripping wet with mascara running down my cheeks.

Yoga isn’t foreign to me. I’m a certified fitness instructor, and I used to teach some yoga myself. But hot yoga just seems different…intimidating…and really, really hot. Scorching.

The instructor preaches a lot of the same things I preach in Dementialand.

“Let go of your expectations. Stay in the moment,” she says. “Focus on the present without looking forward or back. Appreciate being in the here and now.”

I am ridiculously bad at following these instructions. I continue to think about all the emails I have to send when I get home and what TV shows are waiting for me on our TiVo. I wonder if the soup we made over the weekend is still edible.

“No comparisons,” she reminds us. “Don’t compare yourself to the person in front of you, behind you, to your left, or to your right.”

As she refers to each person around me, I look at them with the sole purpose of comparison. I am definitely the oldest person in my immediate vicinity. The joys of living in a college town.

“And don’t compare what you can do today to what you could do yesterday,” she says. This goes against other things I’ve been told in various areas of my life. Isn’t comparing the “you of yesterday” to the “you of today” the basis for personal growth and improvement? How do you have goals if you don’t look forward and back? I’m not all that philosophical though. I’m just hoping maybe if I do this a few times a week my upper body will be more toned.

Hot yoga is tough. As I enter what I consider to be the stage immediately before one goes into extreme heat exhaustion, the instructions seem to get more cryptic.

“Step your right foot between your hands and look over your left shoulder as you press the top of the left foot to the map,” she says. Left-right-right-WHAT? I need references to one body part at a time. I look at the girl in front of me and think she’s doing it wrong. Then I realize I’m doing it wrong. Or maybe I’m right and she’s wrong after all.

I can’t say I hate it. It’s challenging, and I eventually buy a membership to the hot yoga studio. But I can’t help but think that Yogaland is a little bit like Dementialand.

In Dementialand, we tell you to let go of expectations. We tell you to live in the moment. We tell you to stop comparing yourself. That’s what you have to do to get the most out of life with dementia. It’s also what you need to do to get the best out of hot yoga, but I really wouldn’t know. I’m too busy thinking about what I have to do and comparing myself to others. If I ever enter Dementialand full-time, I hope I can do better at following instructions.

A few weeks back I talked to a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Although still functioning at a really high level, she was depressed. Throughout her life, she was fantastic at designing and sewing clothes. She could still do simple patterns, but her work paled in comparison to what she could do a few years back. As someone who can’t sew, I was still impressed with her projects. I told her it was 100 times better than anything I could do. Probably the wrong thing to say.

“So I’m better at sewing than someone who has never sewn. Great,” she said sarcastically. Obviously, attempting to get her to compare her work to my (lack of) work was not going to make her feel better. She was set on comparing her current work to what she used to be able to do.

I tried again. I tried to tell her to focus on the joy of sewing and not the outcome. She told me that I really had no idea how great she used to be at sewing. She even made wedding dresses. She couldn’t do stuff like that anymore.

“My whole life people have told me to work hard and get better at things. Now everyone is telling me to let go of that and be okay with being bad at stuff I used to be good at it. How do I flip that switch?” she asked. I really had no idea.

What I didn’t tell her was that there may come a point when she can enjoy sewing again. Why? Because she will likely forget that she used to be an all-star at sewing. There will likely come a point when she has no memory of making wedding dresses for friends and family.  I don’t know whether to hope that comes soon for her or not.