“That’s the funny thing about Alzheimer’s.”
“Well, not funny.” A look of horror crossed Lucy Pritchard’s face the moment the word came out of her mouth, and Ted couldn’t help but be struck by her piercing blue eyes.
They were kind eyes. Caring eyes. She was a sensitive girl, and it was clear she felt badly at even the suggestion that she found humor in the plight of the afflicted. “I mean, it’s just awful. It’s terrible. To lose yourself like that. Lose who you are.” Lucy frowned, emphasizing her point. “That’s part of why it’s been the focus of my studies. If I can make a difference, even with one person, you know?”
Ted did know. He remembered his own long-ago idealism, how he had cruised out of grad school with the same hopefulness, only to crash a few years later into the multi-car pile-up that was life’s realities. Still, Ted wasn’t interested in crushing other people’s ambitions. Maybe she could make a difference. He certainly wasn’t here to stop her.
“So what’s the funny thing about Alzheimer’s?”
“I’m sorry.” Lucy apologized all over again. “Maybe ironic would be a better word?”
“Works for me,” Ted said, attempting a breezy smile, wondering if she could detect the physical strain required for him to produce it.
“The ironic thing,” Lucy explained, her voice taking on the helplessly preening authority of the over-educated, “is that memories are lost in reverse order. A person’s more recent memories are far more fleeting than the ones from their earlier years. You see, Alzheimer’s disease begins in the hippocampus—” She paused, self-conscious. “Do you already know all this? I don’t want to bore you.”
Ted shook his head to indicate that he did not.
It was a lie of course.
He was already well-versed about the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for translating experiences into memory. He knew from overseeing a floor full of empty, vacant faces that when Alzheimer’s gets to work on the hippocampus, recent experiences never have the chance to become memories. But when one is surrounded day-in and day-out by the old, addled and drooling, you are in no hurry to send away pretty young women with soft skin and long blonde hair who show up in your office wanting to discuss their possible graduate work. So the forty-five-year-old director of the Westwood Senior Center let the twenty-eight-year-old grad student explain the hippocampus in all its wonder, enjoying the view as she spoke.
“You see, it’s not until much later that the disease affects the regions in the brain where older memories are stored, so those memories are available even into the later stages of the disease.” It was the unearthing of these older, lingering memories, Lucy explained, that formed the basis of her proposed therapy. “To help both the patients and the caretakers learn new communication skills. That way, hopefully, their conversations can be a source of comfort, instead of both sides just ending up frustrated with each other.”
Ted made a cursory show of making a decision, though he’d already resolved to grant Lucy Pritchard permission to do whatever she desired—midnight wheelchair races down the corridors if she wanted—anything if it meant she’d return here tomorrow.
“Well it’s certainly worth a try, if you want to give it a shot. How would you like to proceed?”
“I guess I’d need to meet the appropriate patients,” Lucy said, considering her answer, “the ones who are affected, I mean.”
“Sad to say we have no shortage of candidates.” Ted smiled warmly at her and she smiled back. All too politely, he thought, much to his disappointment. “Obviously some more severe than others.”
“Lucy Pritchard, this is Carl Volchoff. Lucy’s going to be doing some volunteer work with us, Carl.”
It was the following afternoon and Ted Troutman stood between Lucy and Carl, making the introductions. A longtime resident of the facility in the waning stages of his disease, eighty-two-year-old Carl sat slumped over in a green plastic-cushioned chair in the TV room, his head lolling as he stared into space.
“Hello, Carl.” Lucy leaned down, shaking the old man’s gnarled spotted hand. Though she spoke in the loud, measured tones that typified initial contact with the elderly, her voice was warm, friendly. “What did you do before you came here, Carl?”