Mental Health Monday: It Takes a Village

manicureDon’t let my title mislead you… this isn’t about raising children….

A well-dressed African American woman who appeared to be in her early seventies was sitting next to me on a bench, waiting for our manicures at a local nail salon this past Thursday. Her purse was open, and she was pulling things out of her wallet and spreading them out next to her—mostly business-type cards and miscellaneous small pieces of paper. After a few minutes she tapped me on the arm, held a card out towards me and asked me what it was.

I looked at the card and replied, “That looks like a membership card for the American Heart Association. Are you looking for something in particular?”

She waved the card in the air and asked, “Can I use this?”

“Use it for what?”

“To get my nails done.”

“No. You need a credit card. Like Visa or MasterCard. Or you can pay with cash. They don’t accept American Express or personal checks here.”

About then one of the salon owners walked over and asked the woman if she was ready to take her seat at one of the manicure tables.

“I can’t yet,” the woman replied. “I don’t have any money. How much do I need?”

“It’s $16,” the owner replied. “And we’re ready whenever you are.”

“Okay. Thank you.” The woman continued to look through her wallet, pulling out various cards and asking me what they were. At one point she handed me a blank check and asked what the words on it meant.

That’s when it dawned on me that she had dementia. I wondered how she even got to the salon, and it brought back flashbacks of the last times I took my mother to a nail salon before she moved to a nursing home over seven years ago. This woman’s caregiver had obviously removed her credit cards—as I had done for Mom at one point when she was in the early stages of dementia. I reached into my purse and pulled out a $20 bill and handed it to her. “This will take care of it.”

Her face lit up. “Oh thank you! Can I hug you?”

We both stood up and introduced ourselves, and then she embraced me in a warm hug. We sat back down, waiting for our turns at the manicure table. About then I heard someone call my name. I turned to see one of the manicure technicians who was working nearby motion me over to her table. She was working on another African American woman’s nails. The woman addressed me:

“She’s my sister. She is well educated, but she has dementia.” Her tone was defensive, and I immediately felt that I had offended her by offering her sister money, but I had no idea that her sister was there with her.

“Oh, I understand. My mother is also well educated, but she has Alzheimer’s.”

The woman warmed to that and added, “Our mother also has Alzheimer’s.” And then she looked over my shoulder at her sister and said, “Money isn’t the problem.” (Both of these women had on more beautiful gold jewelry than I’ve ever owned.) “We can’t get her to come over here at sit at the table to have her manicure.”

“Do you mind if I try?”

She shrugged.

I walked back over to the woman and said, “They’re ready to do your nails now… right over here in the chair next to your sister.”

“Oh really? Okay.” And she gathered her purse and sat next to her sister. At the same time my nail tech ushered me to the chair next to her. I watched as she placed the $20 on the table in front of her and smiled at me.

As both of our manicures began, I overheard her conversation with her nail tech, who had figured out the woman had dementia and asked her if she came with someone today.

“Oh, yes! I’m here with my friend Susan!” And she looked at me and smiled. Her nail tech, who knows me, looked confused, until I winked at her. Her sister, sitting just on the other side of her, rolled her eyes, but didn’t speak.

Later, when the woman got up to use the restroom, her nail tech slipped the $20 into my purse. I looked across the room at the woman’s sister, who was now getting a pedicure. She mouthed the words, “thank you,” and then smiled softly. Worlds of understanding passed between us, and tears filled my eyes. About then her sister came out of the restroom and asked with a panicky voice, “Where is my purse? Has anyone seen my purse?”

Her sister answered from the pedicure chair, “It’s in my daughter’s car. So it won’t get lost. It’s okay.”

holding handsThe woman sat down to wait for her sister. Her idle hands moved aimlessly in her lap. A pang hit my heart as I remember my mother’s panic when I took her purse from her. Eventually I gave it back—without any real credit cards inside. (Read about that event here, at “The Purse.”)

It seems like a lifetime ago when I was trying to help my mother get through this difficult stage of early dementia—the time when she still lived at home, or in assisted living, and tried to manage some of her everyday affairs. The transition from those days to nursing home care was rough, but eventually she seemed to be at peace. Of course I have no idea what’s actually going on inside her tangled brain, but she is at least comfortable and well-cared-for. She no longer gets manicures, so I often cut and file her nails when I visit her, unless her aids have done it for me. It takes a village—at the nursing home or the nail salon.

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2 thoughts on “Mental Health Monday: It Takes a Village”

  1. Thank you for sharing your lovely, caring story. It is so hard in early dementia when the person still remembers some aspects of what they should do but can’t handle the details anymore. This story reminded me of my aunts and of one of my mother-in-law’s friends.

    1. Yes, Joanne, these early stages are in some ways the most difficult because of the fear, frustration and confusion the person is facing. Thanks, again, for reading and commenting.

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