I introduced myself to Jenny, just as I always introduce myself to new residents in the memory care unit, except that during the first few minutes of our conversation, I thought that she was there as a visitor. I only learned that she was a resident after I asked her who she was visiting that day. Her silence told me she wasn’t just visiting. I just nodded, and we had a moment of unspoken mutual understanding.
There were seven ladies gathered around the table, including myself. Jenny clutched her purse tightly but reluctantly agreed to participate in the workshop. Jenny wanted to make it clear to me and everyone else that she did not belong there, that she was not, as she said, “crazy like these people.”
I suspect that the careful, precise, well-chosen words she used for the opening lines were intended as an argument to say, “If you want a story, then I will tell you a story better than anyone else. Maybe then you’ll see that I don’t belong here, that I still matter in the real world.” Jenny sat straight in her chair, alert, focused, professional. Her long salt and pepper hair was pulled away from her face in a high ponytail that rested on her shoulder when she turned her head. She began,
“Irene seems to be alone in a sea of tall buildings and concrete full of people that rush hither and yon and don’t pay attention to the things around them and don’t get to see much of nature. She is standing on a high balcony in this large city, which I assume is New York City, and she has allowed a small insect to sit on her hand. She is looking at wondrously, because she sees so few of them in that environment. The plane is coming in to bring in more people who will be less attached to the real world and more attached to the mechanical world. She is wondering where this will take her in her life.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if Jenny was imposing her current feelings on the character, Irene. Jenny had started our story off with the theme of a natural world overrun by technological progress.
Next to Jenny was Martha, who had finally given up on her search for someone to drive her to Apopka. She, unlike Jenny, had found contentment in her new home, at least temporarily. Her sense of ease might have had something to do with her new best friend. They sat side by side, holding hands as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.
Martha was inspired by Jenny’s eloquent introduction, and she added her storytelling contribution in a high-pitched voice,
“It’s an opera up high. In her hand is a clink, clink. She is an opera singer who needs a lot of clothes. She wants black heals. She is meeting someone in New York City.”
“I think so, too,” Martha’s best friend agreed. “He will want to see her very, very nice. Everything is clean. You can go on it. You have to get a mirror.”
Jenny was clearly annoyed that Martha had given the name “clink clink” to the small insect in the woman’s hand in the storytelling photo prompt.
I, on the other hand, was happy to hear onomatopoeia in the story. The “clink, clink” words made a sound similar to the noise they represented. I imagined a little mechanical bug in the opera singer’s hand, a tiny example of technology replacing the natural world. Martha’s idea complimented the theme Jenny created for the story introduction.
Barbara, another storyteller at the table, demanded answers. “Where is the man?” she asked. “He went away in the water?”
“Let me explain,” said Jenny, as if she were speaking to small children instead of women ten years her senior. “The plane is over the water. The man who is coming to meet her is in the plane.”
“Who is he?” Barbara asked.
Martha responded, “He is anybody that can do it.”
Archetypal themes and characters are a staple in stories by people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, although the archetypal themes and characters are harder to recognize. Superman is still a hero, but it is more difficult for the rational mind to recognize him as such when he is female, elderly, wearing overalls, or in this case, “anybody that can do it.”
People with Alzheimer’s and dementia actually have one advantage over their storytelling peers in that they invent words and concepts when their memories fail to produce the typical image or word, resulting in some very unique creative work. Take, for example, Martha’s clink clink. I’ve learned to accept the most bizarre ideas and to consider them as equally as impressive as Jenny’s story introduction.
Jenny, however, did not appreciate Martha’s ideas or those of the other storytellers.
I would tell him “Nine days.”
Maybe, “Explain, explain, explain, if you have time.”
It’s terrible. He has been away too long, and he needs to explain what he’s been doing. She’ll forgive him. If I knew she was in love with him, if she told me, “I’m in love with him,” then I could know. We have to listen to them.
But that might be someone else’s hand. Very bleak. Very dull. Not enough there to strike up imagination about anything. We don’t want to push it too far.
As they continued the story, Jenny pulled a drawing tablet and a pencil from her purse.
Jenny pretended to be disinterested in what the other storytellers said, but I knew that she was still closely following the story when I asked, “How should the story end?”
“Irene is going back home to the farm. She is going to get on the plane to get out of the horrible unnatural nature of the city. She is going to go home and see how she feels about the situation before she makes up her mind. This is only a chapter of the story. We need another chapter to give us more information.”
I asked Jenny if she would like us to use her artwork with the story, and she agreed. As she pulled it from her drawing tablet, I noticed she only had a few sheets left.
— Invisible Poets (@invisiblepoetsa) May 4, 2014