Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 5, 2009

99 and counting

Like many older folks, husband Art's mother Donna feared ending up in a nursing home, repeatedly saying she would rather be dead. Then, in January, it looked as if she might get her wish. An extensive stroke near the back of her brain on the left side prompted her doctor to predict it would be fatal. If she did survive, she would be severely impaired on her right side. Certainly this woman who had lived independently for 98 years would rather die.

But not only was the doctor wrong, Donna was, too.

Oh, at first she wanted to die, no question about it. But then, little by little, things began to get better. Although she cannot do much with her right arm, her right leg is strong enough that she can walk with help again. The right half of her field of vision is gone, but she compensates by turning her head more in that direction.

But perhaps the cruelest blow should have been the aphasia. I would think for a woman who enjoyed talking more than anything else that having her speech reduced to gibberish would be extremely depressing. She is beset by neologisms - using made-up words. She exhibits paraphasia, where letters, syllables or whole words are wrongly substituted for correct ones.

But not all the time. Sometimes she will speak almost perfectly for a sentence or two.

Then Art, always the analyst, discovered that one common speech problem she doesn't have is dysprosody. Her frequent utterances always have the appropriate inflection, stress and rhythm. So on a recent two-hour drive where she spoke incessantly, he understood nearly everything she said. This communication was possible only because Art and his mother have spoken so much over the years that he knows her speech patterns well. And by watching what she was looking at or observing her many gestures, communication was easy.

Back in her room, it was much harder for Art to make out what she was saying. There, her questions and comments were more about abstractions or people so communication became more of a guessing game.

But Donna's gestures, faces and animated speech patterns that make communication possible also have made her a hit with the staff. And other residents ask her to sit at their tables at meals.

She even enjoys pulling people's legs at times. Until the care givers were sure Donna's swallowing was OK, the aspirin she takes to ward off another stroke was crushed and put into pudding. She hated the bitter taste and stuck out her tongue every time they gave it to her.

But with her swallowing deemed OK, the staff began to gave her whole pills. But she still made a face. Art's brother Tommy asked her why and, in one of her rare clear-speaking times, she explained that the staff finds her faces funny, so she does it for them.

Once Tommy told the staff what Donna was doing, she quit doing it.

But it is Donna's adjustment to her circumstances that Art finds most amazing. One evening as he was returning with her after another long drive, Donna again had a rare period of clear speech.

"It's odd to think now that I have two homes," she said, motioning with her head first in the direction of where she has lived the past 64 years and then toward the nursing home. "I lived there so long, but here there are good people and I have friends."

Many people are fond of the expression "never say never" to emphasize that sometimes something that seems unacceptable or unbelievable may later be embraced. Donna, now past 99, is well aware of the reality of her situation. Still, she has repeatedly and frequently expressed she has no desire to have it end any time soon.

2009 Index