A compassionate excursion into the world of people with Alzheimer's

DANCING WITH ROSE: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s by Lauren Kessler. Viking, June 2007. Hardcover, $24.95.

Lauren Kessler’s sixth work of literary nonfiction takes her into the underpaid, understaffed ranks of caregivers in a residential facility for a growing, vulnerable older population suffering from the form of dementia recognized as Alzheimer’s.

Kessler’s motivation for immersing herself in the workforce as an aide at the care center she calls Maplewood was both personal and professional. Her mother had died of the disease, and Kessler felt she had not done enough to understand what her parent was going through, what she needed. A university professor, she took the entry-level, physical care job as a personal challenge. And as a professional journalist, she was interested in writing about the disease as it affects individuals and their families.

What Kessler hadn’t foreseen is that she would lose her heart to those in her care and that she would come to think of this job as the best she’d ever had. Most surprisingly to those who have not spent time with people with Alzheimer’s, she finds hope, humor and resilience in them, as in high-maintenance, 91-year-old Hayes:

“If awake, he demands attention. If he’s out of his room, you better be there right next to him, or he’ll make sure you regret it. He is forever yelling. Yet the man is, somehow, a charmer. … Just when you have exhausted the very last smidgen of patience, he delivers a witty line. When you’re sure he doesn’t understand, he says something so insightful it takes your breath away. Then, that neatly accomplished, he goes back to being a bossy, cranky, difficult old coot.”

In this heartfelt personal narrative, Kessler lets readers in on her own emotional state while waking, dressing, toileting, feeding, putting to bed, playing and talking with these frequently mystifying, always complicated and sometimes delusional elders. The cast of characters assembled here is large but not crowded, embracing both those who in earlier times contributed to their community as well as those who led ordinary lives.

Kessler writes compassionately about her fellow bottom-rung caregivers, who work hard for little pay and no benefits while raising families as a single parent or taking care of a sick husband or grandmother. Because she does the same work other workers perform, Kessler understands their job stress and frustration at trying to live on meager wages. She does not take her own privileged life for granted but looks at it from a perspective tempered by daily awareness that others are not so fortunate.

Further, Kessler brings her formidable intellect to bear on the subject of Alzheimer’s, researching the latest findings on this disease that now affects some 4.5 million people a year, a number still growing. And, like all of us whose lives have been touched by this powerful dementia, she wonders about her own end of life and if a real scientific breakthrough will occur in time. But because she sees (and helps with) the high quality of care people with Alzheimer’s receive in the facility where she works, Kessler makes peace with the disease, as in this passage:

“I now think I’d rather spend my waning days walking around clueless, holding a big chocolate chip cookie in my hand, being hugged by big, pillowy women than lying in a hospital bed hooked up to IVs, alert, cognizant, with every memory intact.”

Kessler takes a courageous, admirable stand here, fully realizing an extroverted society such as ours can only imagine with horror losing all of one’s possessions, including the ego, its success-driven persona and its personal history.

There are many reasons to be hopeful about Alzheimer’s if only we can come to more deeply understand the meaning of life’s end. Then we may be able to take on the good work of caring for one another, or, when that is not possible, wholeheartedly supporting those who care for our loved ones for us.

Lauren Kessler will read from Dancing With Rose at the UO Library Browsing Room at 7 pm today, Thursday, May 31. She will also read at Barnes and Noble at 7 pm on Wednesday, June 13.

BOOK NOTES: Alissa Lukara discusses and signs Riding Grace, 7 pm 5/31, Barnes & Noble. Clay Eals reads from Steve Goodman: Facing the Music, 2 pm 6/2, UO Bookstore. Jillian Robinson reads from Changing Your Life Through Travel, 7 pm 6/5, Knight Library, UO. Molly Gloss introduces the Oregon Quarterly essay contest winners reading, 7:30 pm 6/7, Gerlinger Alumni Lounge, UO. Sign up for Summer Reading at the Eugene Public Library starting June 2!

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