When I started visiting patients in nursing homes, a good many of them had some degree of dementia. In its earliest form, a person with dementia could recall what they were doing when they found out about 9/11, or when Kennedy was shot, or when Pearl Harbor was bombed in the Second World War. However, they couldn’t recall their most recent events.
As the dementia progressed, it removed more and more recent periods of memory, leaving people to find themselves living their lives as parents, though their physical age was more in the (great)-grandparent range. This was most evident in the ladies who would care for small stuffed puppies or kittens and the one notable celebrity in our home—the baby doll. I’m not certain where it came from, but throughout the year, it traveled from lady to lady, throughout the facility. It was never without pampering, company, or attention. Sometimes the ladies would quietly, almost inaudibly, talk to the baby. They would always smile at her. They would have her sit on their forearms, pressed up against their chests with her head turned slightly inward and her small arm about their necks—as if to take a nap. The ladies would sometimes stroke her back or place a blanket over her. She slept with them in bed. The infant was well cared for by her cadre of experienced, veteran mommies.
Then one day, COVID struck, and confusion reigned. Ladies found their roommates disappearing, and their staff and attendants now masked, gowned, and gloved. They had to go to special wards, and some had to go to the hospital. Life became a frenetic mess of vitamins, minerals, steroids, and antibiotics … for a virus! Visitation was made almost impossible. Loved ones couldn’t even touch or hold them without a mask and a barrier. The baby became lost in this tumult. Then one day, I found the baby alone in a corner. I realized then that COVID had truly struck the home very hard. There was no one to cuddle the baby or give her succor. Nobody was there to caress her and hug her. There was no one left to whisper gently in her ear, “Everything’s going to be all right.”
Robert Killeen is a hematologist.