Asheville Citizen Times – Rob Neufeld

Asheville Citizen Times – Rob Neufeld
Rob Neufeld’s Book Review in the Asheville Citizen Times

The competition-winning one-act plays about Alzheimer’s disease that Asheville nonprofit MemoryCare brought to the stage last year are now in book form.

Book sales as well as proceeds from new stage productions will benefit afflicted families.

The inspiration that informed the project is also a literary statement. Drama, you can believe, communicates the mysteries, complexities and human experience of dementia better than manuals.

I know. I write this piece away from home, where I have gathered with family and friends on the occasion of my father’s death at age 93 of dementia.

Two sons’ views

“I can barely look at him,” responsible son Peter exclaims about his failing father, Arthur, in Matthew Widman’s play, “In the Garden.”

“Dad taught for 40 years,” Peter says. “He had respect. He loved respect… (Now) he’d probably rather be dead than see himself like this.”

“But Dad’s happy,” free-living son Jamie responds. “He may not remember things — but he’s happy. Maybe he had a different reality. Maybe he’s living in a more truthful place.”

The children, including a daughter, Karen, have two decisions to make: whether to make sure Arthur knows his wife has died; and whether to move Arthur to a nursing home.

The decisions hinge on a knowledge of what goes on in a dementia sufferer’s heart and mind.

Mystery of the mind

The plays in the MemoryCare collection open the curtains on family struggles, and attempt to portray the minds of people with dementia. There is a lot more exploring to be done with the latter issue.

“Riding the Waves” by L.E. Grabowski-Cotton dramatizes one woman’s damaged mental state by having her experience periodic waves of delusion. Sometimes she lives in the present, and sometimes in the 30-years-ago past. The two realities ebb and flow.

The author instructs stage directors to use the same actor for both Isabel’s late husband, with whom she converses, and their son, who administers to her.

I understand that living in two time periods is one form that an Alzheimer patient’s memory process takes.

It is not the form my father’s took. I recorded a story my father told after he went in an ambulance to a hospital after he’d fallen because he’d forgotten he needed a walker.

Dementia speaks

“Something that might be a minor event might, in the process, turn out to be more than a minor event,” he philosophized with awe.

“You know what that reminds me of? I have a sheet rock all-purpose joint compound container. Who knows? One day, that item might spring up to be a major item — or a minor item — and create a — I don’t know what to call it — I just get the feeling sometimes that something will break apart.”

The actual event — the “situation in which I would be a participant,” as he put it—was the arrival of EMS medics.

“I was amazed,” he continued. “It’s like they kidnapped me, and took me on a free ride. I bet you never thought you’d hear anything like that. I went along with it … I watched the show. I relaxed.”

“I did come to a conclusion,” he said, conscious of ending his story satisfactorily.

“If you’re involved in a situation — in this case, the one I was involved in with these two men and a vehicle traveling around — this is no joking matter … but everything worked out beautifully. I had a wonderful time with these two public employees who were taking me on a ride. I’m amazed that I get involved in these things that I don’t understand.”

Peace and panic

The contrast between the beatific and panicked attitudes that one sees in dementia sufferers makes decision-making by families difficult.

In each of the plays in the book, there’s a character who is able to establish an adaptive communication with their ailing loved one. None of the plays dwell on the horror enough, which makes you feel that the authors are being gentle with the reader as well as the subject.

The title of Arnold Johnston’s and Deborah Ann Percy’s play, “Steering into the Skid,” suggests a feeling of horror, but it couldn’t be more gentle as it shows the gradual loss of capacities of a man named Tim through 12 months of vignettes.

It opens with Tim clearing every trace of snow from an SUV windshield. His wife notes his obsessiveness, and he counters with a metaphor for non-windshield-cleaners: careless drunks driving around in igloos.

Arriving home from a New Year’s Party, his wife, Amanda, shouts, “Tim! Here’s our street! Here! Here!”

As Tim makes the quick turn, he responds, “I saw it. You startled me. I could have gone into a skid. You’re lucky I know how to steer into them.”

At the end of the play, as New Year’s has come around again, Amanda is brushing snow from the windshield and she’s the driver. She has arranged for a visiting nurse for Tim, while she goes to work and he stays at home instead of going to a care facility.

(Not mentioned: She’ll be up three times a night, for he’ll be restless, and she’ll have to be worried about him hurting himself or starting a fire.)

Tim, describing his general condition says, “I feel like I’m moving inside an igloo.”

Importance of language

The way the playwrights use the metaphor of the car and other metaphors is movingly effective.

Johnston and Percy also grace their play with affectionate humor. I and others experienced that with my father, too, as well as another kind of humor.

My stepmother had engaged helpers and caregivers at home. One new helper was working in the kitchen when my father called out to her, “Are you married?”

The helper broke down, holding back sobs as she told how she and her fiancée had just broken up.

My father offered empathetic reassurance in words and tone, and the helper felt much better, as if she had had a catharsis.

A minute passed. The helper continued to work in the kitchen. Then my father called out, “Are you married?”

The editor of the collection, Dr. Margaret Noel, had her dementia-suffering grandmother die in her arms, she tells us in her preface.

“Slowly losing her taught me that there had to be a better way of helping a family through this journey.” In 2000, she founded MemoryCare to “provide specialized medical care to older adults with memory loss, to support caregivers … and to provide community education.”

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of four books, and the host of the website The Read on WNC. Contact him at or 828-505-1973.