Back in the mid and late 1970s, I was the social services director and activities coordinator in a 132-bed skilled nursing facility in St. Petersburg, FL. Almost all of the residents there (we did not call them patients) suffered to some degree or another from dementia. Most were in their late eighties and nineties, so they had been born at and before the turn of the 20th century.
Part of my job was to gather a personal history on each one, which proved to be very difficult in some cases, but in others, incredibly rewarding and interesting. They included a resident who had been the lead clarinetist in John Philip Sousa’s band, and several residents who had been in pioneer families, including one who described being a little girl going west in a covered wagon train.
Many had grown up in circumstances of dire privation. Some were immigrated survivors of the Irish potato famines, some remembered their families’ devastation by events like the stock market Panic of 1907. Many had lived their early lives in difficult, rural poverty.
The nursing home itself was posh by most standards, and with the exception of a number of VA and Medicaid cases required by state regulations, their presence there was a testament to how successfully each had overcome their hard beginnings.
As I got to know them over time, I began to notice there were more than a few who had strange habits about hoarding, especially food. I knew perfectly well that everyone was well fed and cared for, and they were allowed to buy and keep special snacks in their rooms for nibbling if they wanted to, as long as there was no medical reason to forbid it.
In particular, one woman, Elsie, who was dear to my heart, had a deep compulsion to try and sneak nearly whole meals back to her room. It really was a problem because when she was successful, she usually forgot she had done so, and moldering food could be found tucked into her clothes drawers, under the bed and so forth.
In one incident, Elsie was discovered to have wrapped several pieces of birthday cake in her petticoat. I was standing there when the nurse tried to clean the squished cake from her clothing. Elsie, who was almost unfailingly a jovial, gentle soul, burst into angry tears and fought the nurse like a demon.
Eventually, hours later, Elsie was consoled and peace was restored. But I learned a very valuable lesson from her, and I’ll share that with you tomorrow.