Friday, October 24, 2008


Here is the fourth excerpt from my memoir, "Dementia Diary, A Caregiver's Journal." Hope you enjoy it and return soon for future installments.


When Minnie and Sidney Sweet retired to Florida around 1970, he was in his mid 60’s and she in her late 50’s. They were young retirees. Sid sold his small manufacturing business, and the building housing it, for just enough money to promise a comfortable, if not opulent, lifestyle. So they took the plunge. They left their only son. They left their daughter-in-law, and their three grandchildren. They left siblings, cousins and lifelong friends, and they bought a condo in a Florida retirement village.

You know the kind. Two bedrooms. Two bathrooms. A living room leading to a Florida room (porch, to you) that looked out at the seventh hole. A small kitchen (who cooks? It’s cheaper to eat out with the Early Bird)—and insufficient closet space.

The community boasted a full time resort atmosphere complete with clubhouse, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf course, transit system, and security gate. And, of course, shuffleboard. The ubiquitous shuffleboard. The Sweets never looked back!

The stock market decline of the 1970’s took the glow off the carefree nature of their relocation. It was a disappointment for Sidney, and one that attacked his self-image as a provider and protector of his family. Even though he had no personal control over what was happening to the economy, nothing could convince him that their troubles weren’t his fault. For Minnie, it was a shock to her sense of security. Her verbal expressions of these feelings did little to help Sidney overcome his guilt feelings.

Still, the Sweets had enough money left, when combined with Social Security and Medicare, to maintain a modest but adequate existence. So they survived. Actually, they thrived. In spite of the economy, they soared. The years flew by. They joined every charitable organization they could find. So did all the other newcomers.

The Sweets were warm and affable people. They provided a happy home for me as a youngster and, after I married, a loving embrace for the new family that I was creating. It was not surprising that they made many new friends in Florida. People liked and respected them. Sidney’s sense of humor and his integrity were widely admired, and he was a role model that many aspired to imitate. This was especially true for his son. Minnie’s enthusiastic and outgoing nature attracted people to her like bears to honey. They played golf, went to meetings, played golf, enjoyed social events, played golf, had doctor appointments (of which there were many), played golf and, of course, they shopped.

Shopping, for most of us, is about meeting our basic needs and desires for food, clothing, gadgets and luxury items. For some people, however, it has other satisfactions and it fills other needs. It may be a social event with emotional overtones—or a way to fill time in an otherwise boring life—or even, for some, an addiction that brings cheer to an otherwise dreary disposition. This can be as true for snowbirds and retirees of the Sunbelt as it is for the rest of the population—maybe even truer.

Consider a typical day in the life of the Sweets. In the morning they’d shop for, say, a toaster oven. They’d buy one, take it home and plug it in. They’d then enjoy a nice lunch with slices of toast made in their new purchase. But there’d be a problem. The bread might be browning less evenly than expected. Maybe it would even be getting a little too dark and crisp along the edges. They wanted a perfect piece of toast, something that the new oven seemed incapable of producing. Too bad! They’d have to bring the toaster back. They’d return it to the store for a refund and then, of course, would proceed to buy something else that would probably have to be returned the next day. And so it went. Day after day after day. And the Sweets were joined in these daily shopping adventures by thousands of their contemporaries. One wonders how the retailers managed to stay in business.

If this description seems amusing, consider the other side of the story. Shopping can provide a brief escape from the preoccupation with death and disease that is the constant companion of the seniors that populate these retirement communities. Their adult children “up north” may still believe in the illusion of their own immortality, but our shoppers know better. And yet, these older Americans somehow manage to mix a laugh or two with the bad things that happen daily to their neighbors, friends, and to themselves. It’s how they cope with their reality.

A case in point: While there isn’t anything happy in the tragedy about to be described, there is a bit of the ironic. Something that may elicit a smile or two even as it evokes the tears. Here’s what happened. One day in 1990, Minnie and Sidney Sweet decided to go to a nearby Sears & Roebuck store. It was early and the store just opened. They entered the store and, as they walked toward the escalators, Sidney died. That’s right, he died. On the spot. One minute he was walking alongside Minnie and the next he was laying face down where he had pitched forward onto the floor. With no sound, no cry of pain, nothing. His complexion was grey, and he was gone.

Later, a doctor was to say it was a massive heart event, that Sidney had felt no discomfort and never knew what happened. The doctor said it was a good way to die, easy on the deceased, but hard on his loved ones. It was indeed very hard on his son (and I should know), but it was hardest on Minnie. Imagine her horror. She had spent all of her married life almost totally dependent on her husband. She didn’t drive (more about that at another time), was rarely separated from him, and drew her emotional strength and most of her identity from him. It was not an uncommon role for women of her generation.

Also, her dementia had started. Not that anyone close to her, or she herself, recognized that her exaggerated personality quirks and her growing memory lapses were due to illness. They were just “Minnie,” and what could you do? Perhaps Sidney knew something was amiss. Perhaps not. But without him to “cover” for her behavioral idiosyncrasies, she would become more and more exposed.

In any event, Minnie never really expected to have to face life without Sidney. Oh, she knew that they were getting into the dangerous years, and they had even talked about it. But that was an abstraction, not something that could really happen. Until that morning at Sears, when it did. And what a way to have to face it. Alone among strangers, in a department store, sudden death. A catastrophe. She screamed and cried and couldn’t be consoled. She was seventy-seven.

Why, you ask, were they in a Sears store that morning? You guessed it. They were returning a small rug they had purchased the day before for the floor of their bathroom. It didn’t look as nice as they had anticipated. Twelve years after the event, at eighty-nine, Minnie would smile when asked whether Sid died before or after they returned the rug, and whether they were able to get their refund. She would chuckle at the thought, but could not recall the answer. A year later, at ninety, she would struggle to remember who Sidney was—and she would ask the visitor to tell her how her husband died.

End of Chapter

If you'd like to buy a copy of the book, it's easy. Just click the "Buy Now" badge on the right, or the link to my website just above my Wellsphere photo. And feel free to post your comments below.

Bob Tell
Author, "Dementia-Diary, A Caregiver's Journal"

1 comment:

Will Webbyte said...

I have no idea what to say. In any case, at least your mother has you. There are those of us who have no one.

She is very blessed to have you.

PS. I wonder where they get these insane word verification things? Some of the stuff is really hilarious.