Conversations with a 96-year old

Posted on May 17, 2016

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The first day I met Jay, he asked me, “Guess how old I am!” I said, “85”. “No, I am 95,” he said proudly. He turned 96 this past December. He does everything himself, without assistance. He bathes, eats, uses the washroom by himself. He walks independently with the help of a cane. He is proud of his age, and why not!

I have known him almost a year, and I can say he is one of my favourite people. He has dementia. The type of dementia he has, has led him to loose inhibition and impulse control. He makes inappropriate sexual comments towards women and gets into arguments with men unprovoked. He often has to sit by himself as he has “bad mood” days. I sit with him a lot. And yes, he does try to cop a feel with me too. It’s nothing personal. It’s dementia. Damage to the frontal lobe.

The most iconic conversation with him went like this:

Jay: Would you like to f*&^?
Me: (nonchalantly) Not really.
Jay: (even more nonchalantly) Oh, well!

Over time, we have developed a good rapport. I often sit with him as he has his morning coffee. He will read the paper to me. The topic doesn’t matter. He will try to caress my hands sometimes, and I will look straight into his eyes and gently say, “Jay, I don’t like that.” And he stops every time. Sometimes, he imitates the way I speak, but every time, he lets go.

In the afternoon, he spends his time colouring. He has coffee to his left and the paints to his right. He can sit there for two hours at a stretch and keep colouring. Once, I told him, “You’re very talented, Jay!” And he replied, “I know.”

Today, I saw him colouring an animal of some sort. He was working on it laboriously. But when I looked, it was just wet paper. I soon gathered that he was using only white! I said, “Use some colour.” He looked at me exasperatedly and said, “He’s white.” I felt bad that it was going to look like he hadn’t done anything after all that intent effort, but his tone booked no argument, so I said nothing further.

Jay then pointed to the other picture on the table and said, “Here. You do this one.” This is the first time he invited me to sit. It is usually me who initiates the sitting down and chatting. I sat down and began colouring. It felt weirdly good. I don’t think I have used paints since middle school, so about twenty years.

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Coffee, tea and water colours 🙂

It was the picture of a comic cobra with a crown. The first colour, I picked was a bright pink. “He can’t be rosy,” Jay giggled. He was more appreciative when I took the brown. As I progressed in my colouring, he kept encouraging me, “Good colour choice,” and “That looks great, don’t you think,” and “That’s very nice, great job!” I felt oddly exhilarated. I realized in that moment that his opinion mattered to me.

There was something different in our connection today. He was the one making the conversation. He asked me, “Are you married?” I said yes. “Do you have any children?” I said no. He coloured for a few minutes in silence and then said, “Have children before it is too late.” I later found out that he doesn’t give advice to just anybody.

When I was done, he said, “It looks amazing. Take it home.” I did it bring it home. I am going to put it up in my office and think of Jay every time I look at it.

Relationship-centred care refers to establishing a relationship with the person living with dementia and having a genuine give and receive. But I receive much more than I can ever give Jay.

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