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Fifteen years into Alzheimer’s, the ER is our family room

STEFANO MORRI/The Globe and Mail

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It's Saturday and I'm in the mall, supposedly shopping, but my mind is elsewhere.

Two hours ago I visited Elvi, my mom, at the nursing home. She had a swollen cheek, discoloured eyes, a lacerated wrist and a deep cut on the back of her head.

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It looked, as my sister said, like she'd gone "10 rounds with Muhammad Ali."

My body is on autopilot heading for some store while my mind mulls things over: "Maybe another urinary tract infection; maybe the doctor will suggest wheelchair restraint; maybe a new phase in the disease; maybe …"

"Hey, Chris. It's been a long time. How are you?"

Back to manual control. Sandra and her husband, the daughter and son-in-law of my former neighbour, Ellen. I haven't seen them for ages.

"Hi, not bad."

We chat. Eventually I ask about Ellen.

"Mom's still in the home. It's been 13 years."

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"Can it be that long?" I think. Let's see, Ellen went in a couple of years before I sold my house. And I sold in 2003. Yes, 13 years.

Parkinson's, if I recall, but I will not ask. I recognize the tone in Sandra's voice. It tells me that the time for commiserating or condolences is long past.

Instead, I talk about cribbage. Ellen used to always be sitting in her yard at the precise moment I arrived home from work. This puzzled me because there was great variation in my arrival times.

She'd immediately invite me over to play cribbage. More often than not, "cribbage" was code for "let's have a beer and some munchies and talk."

Telling the story perks me up. Ellen was a wonderful hostess even when she thrashed me at crib. I hope it will give them a smile as well.

We wish each other well and go our separate ways.

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Three weeks later, a Friday night, I'm joking with an emergency-room nurse while holding a sedated but still struggling Elvi's arms in place: "Maybe you should give me a shot of that sedative?" I say. The nurse keeps Elvi's head still while the doctor sutures the gash above her eye.

The previous week my sister was here while the ER tended to Elvi's elbow. Nothing broken. Tonight it's stitches, CT scans and a tetanus shot.

The ER staff finish up and move on. I sit down to wait for the transfer ambulance.

"Reserved seats" pops into my head. I chuckle, thinking back four years, when our regular visits to the ER with Elvi prompted one of us to ask staff if repeat business entitled us to reserved seats in the waiting room. It's better to laugh rather than cry.

Two beds over, a woman is telling the doctor that bedbugs are coming out of her body. Elderly people, tubes attached, are waiting patiently on gurneys while paramedics stand watch.

Someone is screaming out back. A nurse calmly inspects a bassinet while worried young parents crane to see. All staff, it seems, must detour via the communal cookie jar. Should I ask for a cookie?

My cellphone rings.

It's Ken, a friend. I tell him I'm at the ER. Elvi mumbles. Ken hears it and says he agrees with her. I laugh. He lets me kill some time complaining about my hockey pool.

Then he tells me Ellen died on Dec. 28. That's probably a good thing, I think, while watching Elvi.

Later, the ambulance arrives and we take her back to her nursing home. Once again I am thankful for the professionalism and good humour of an ER team. I tell the night nurse at the home that I'll be in tomorrow – Saturday is one of my regular days.

No surprises Saturday – maybe only a six-round bout.

The staff and I go over the situation and agree on a course of action. Then it's off to my sister Cindy's to confer. She agrees we should call our sister up north; she needs to know about all these falls and injuries. Then I return home to my couch.

A cousin calls, asking if I feel like joining them for dinner and a drink at a restaurant. I don't tell them how much I needed this call. I know how lucky I am for the support of family and friends.

We order dinner and I pontificate on sports, politics, movies and other trivia. It's good fun and they humour me. The conversation moves toward my mom.

"Fifteen years," my cousin says. Can it be that long that Elvi's been ill?

We work it through: She's been "Elvi" for three years; for four years before that she was still "Mom" most of the time. There were a number of years before the seven she's been in the nursing home when Dad managed with some help from us; before that a couple of higher-functioning years just after the Alzheimer's diagnosis.

As we talk, and much to my surprise, Diane, Ellen's eldest daughter, appears from the restaurant's back room. A family gathering for Ellen is winding down. A little conversation; there's not much to say. Diane and her husband head home to rest.

I watch for other family members. Next comes Sandra. Then her brother Gordon. I haven't seen him for years. We catch up, exchange phone numbers.

Before leaving, Gordon says: "It's Saturday. For 13 years this was my day. Tonight I can finally go home, have a glass of wine and relax."

I am jealous.

Chris Clark lives in New Westminster, B.C.

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