Not too terribly long ago I stopped by a dry cleaning store for my work. As soon as I stepped through the glass door, I knew that something was amiss. I could see the older woman, with her back to me, was disheveled and was speaking too loud and with too much animation. I could see the fear and uncertainty in the woman behind the counters’ eyes. Both looked up as I walked in. No one else occupied the tiny reception area.
As I waited my turn, it became apparent to me that the customer speaking to the cashier was suffering some form of dementia. The longer I stood there and listened, the more upset I became. The worker was completely lost as to what she should do and what to say. The older woman was claiming her son had been abusing her, her husband abused her, she eventually started telling us about her childhood and her father, who was a pastor, and how he had treated her so well and how much she missed him. We listened and and listened for almost 30 minutes. As I was listening I was trying to figure out what to do. I needed to be home to take Frances to practice and I needed to finish work for the day. But I couldn’t move. I was unable to leave.
The pain, the heartache and the absolute desire to help this woman instantly kicked in. I took over the conversation from the lady behind the counter. My new friend and I held hands and went back and forth. She was all over the place in her thoughts. Moving rapidly from present day to conjuring memories of a life she hadn’t lived in decades.
I surprised myself with the compassion and a sense of protectiveness for this complete stranger. Throughout the ordeal, I found out the police had already been summoned and no one answered when her home was called. I was allowed to look in her purse to try to find an address or another phone number. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. It was so frustrating to try to help her and not have any way to do it.
Eventually the police showed up and they did a wonderful job talking to her and helping her. They sent someone to her home. No one was there. Eventually they tracked down her son. The one she had claimed slept on the couch all day, didn’t work and didn’t feed her. I had been doubting her story. Then when he drove up, he didn’t speak to her. He walked into the store and didn’t even announce who he was and why he was there. There was no concern for his mom. There was no thanks to us for helping. It was the strangest and saddest thing.
We walked to his car. Filth. Everywhere. The back seat and much of the front was covered with stuff. Lots of stuff. There was barely room for her to sit. I hated letting her leave. I did however make sure I let him know that she needed help. I told him she needed a bracelet to wear that had her information on it. I told him he needed to keep an eye on her and take her to the doctor. He completely ignored me. Which made me even madder.
I have thought many times about the woman at the dry cleaning store. She taught me so much. One important reminder was to have patience with Jim. At the time, I had been having a really difficult time with our situation and I had been losing patience with Jim and the kids. With her, I had plenty of empathy and understanding. There was no anger. Why could I be there for her, but not for my own husband? Something about this was unsettling.
I have also thought about the fact that people are charged with child abuse and neglect if they don’t take care of their children. If a child had wandered away and been found miles from home, making accusations of abuse, there would have been an investigation. If a dog is found abused and not taken care of, the owner is charged with animal cruelty. Yet, an older adult can be just as lost as a child or a dog and the people in their life that should be watching out for them have little consequences. If they don’t take the necessary precautions to keep the afflicted safe, who will know? Yes, there are some cases of elder abuse. Those few charges usually take a very long time to prove and it takes a lot of documentation and a lot of abuse to happen first. Why? If someone has the mental capabilities of a child, why aren’t they protected like a child?
Immediately after this episode, I decided Jim needed a Medic Alert bracelet that will have a way to help him or someone that finds him get in touch with me should he become lost. He isn’t at this stage, but I would rather be prepared sooner rather than later.