Last week, I had an experience that dropped me into an alternate reality. I was walking to my apartment at the retirement center, drifting along a sun lighted corridor lined with windows when, ahead of me, a young woman, a nurse by her uniform, appeared to be blocking the exit where an elderly woman stood, flailing her arms in distress. When she saw me, the nurse mouthed from a distance: “Take another exit.”
I did as directed, retracing my steps so that I could return to my apartment via the outside path that bordered the same bank of windows. When I reached the point from which I’d retreated, I could see the situation remained tense. By this time, the elderly woman had turned toward the window and seeing me, she banged her fists against the glass. “Help me! Help me please!” Her eyes, wide with fear, reminded me of horse startled by fire. I hesitated. But the nurse, her arms dangling at her sides, sent me a warning glance, one hardened by her duty.
I moved on, my steps sticking to the pavement as if I were trudging through mud. The scene being played out before me was none of my business. Yet I felt it should be — like the duty a traveler experiences in an Agatha Christie novel when she witnesses a crime on a passing train.
I did nothing, of course. The help this terrified woman needed was near, hovering like a stern, guardian angel. What I’d experienced at that moment was anxiety for myself. Was this face on the other side of the window a reflection of my future?
I walked away, my head hung in shame. The woman I’d left behind must have marveled at my cruelty. How could I explain I wasn’t real for her. We stood a pane’s width apart, yet we existed in separate realities. I could neither enter her world of darkness nor share the sunshine of mine. My heart broke.
Fear of dementia casts its shadow over all of us, except the young who have no eyes to see it. But for those of us who do, perhaps we should consider new ways to treat our walking wounded. In Holland, a village exists for people with dementia. Surrounded by a secured perimeter, patients walk safely to restaurants, cafes and gardens without feeling locked down. (Click) That might be a place to start.
(Originally posted 10/5/15)