My Mother's Creatures - Great and Small
By Felicia Mitchell

I love the story of Noah and his ark.   I don’t care if the story is factual or not.  What appeals to me is an ark full of animals under the care of loving humans, awash in waters blanketing an earth that needed a good cleaning. I like the happy ending when the dove returns.

My mother Audrey has always loved animals.  After her children grew up and left home, she began to show loving concern for the animals around her, from adopted cats to mourning doves that perched on wires outside her house to a lizard she fed lettuce to in a jar top on her sun porch.   When my mother’s capacities began to shift with the evolution of her dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, her love for animals, including imaginary animals, grew stronger. 

I definitely knew something was shifting in her consciousness when we walked into a Barnes and Noble Bookstore one evening and the only thing that she wanted was that stuffed rat of Harry Potter fame.  One nice thing about toy animals like this rat is that you can love them and care for them, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to feed them.  They don’t die. 

Most importantly, you can take toy animals into a nursing home when you have to give up your home.  Unlike books with words that confuse, or people who may not do what you expect, they sit there ready to be cared for.  They are always warm and fuzzy.

Sure, real animals are great.  Before she moved into her nursing home, I worried about removing Audrey from her real cat.  Fortunately, she also gets to interact with live animals.  The therapy dogs that visit the nursing home, including my own small dog Spot, whom she calls a kitty, keep her smiling and patting.  One week last fall, a stray cat found her for a few days on the porch where she goes to watch the horses across the street.  She fed it her milky coffee and talked to it until a visitor adopted it and gave it a home.   As great as they are, these real animals come and go.  The toy ones are always there, adding a layer of stability that Audrey needs.

Just as a child will play and imagine, Audrey continues to do so.  From visit to visit, I watch the creative arrangements of stuffed animals shifting.    Whatever else she does with her time, the animals seem to offer Audrey some focus for her attention.  These animals reinforce not only to her need to show, affection but also her inclination  to order things. For example, she likes to handle and study and arrange them.  Sometimes I will visit and find that the tiny kitten made in Austria is reclining in a plastic container that she used to soak her false teeth in.  A larger bear may hold a smaller bear.  The fox with the red scarf we found on one of our Saturday outings is often reclining in the arms of a rabbit.

Because she likes to play with them and make them interact, one day I got the idea of adding to her growing menagerie with a dollhouse of some kind, preferably one that had animals instead of people, in order to add a layer of play. While one might worry about spoiling a child, I don’t worry that we are spoiling Audrey.  I know that one day she may not recognize her toys. So off I went to Wal-Mart, where I walked up and down the aisles, looking for another special something. That’s where I spotted Noah’s Ark.  We set it up on a Saturday afternoon and she praised it, but then asked if we were going out. After all, it was Saturday, and it wasn’t too cold for an excursion to our favorite coffee shop.

When we returned, she did pick up the zebras and monkeys to get acquainted with them. She liked the toy, I could tell, but wondered who Noah was.  I told her about Noah and his wife and left her under their care and crossed my fingers.  So far so good.

On one level, Noah’s Ark is cute.  On another, Noah’s Ark gives an Alzheimer’s patient like my mother something that allows her the opportunity to make more connections. She can count, and she loves to count, so something with two of everything (except for the plastic straw and peas) invites pairing and counting.  Seeing two of each, she has to think about matching.  Don’t get me wrong.  The idea isn’t to create a baby Einstein in reverse.  The idea is to give her something stimulating to do that involves arranging little plastic pieces in novel ways.  We all know that Alzheimer’s patients who are stimulated fare better than those who are left alone.

The next visit after I gave Audrey Noah’s Ark, I found she had moved the whole thing from her table to her windowsill, lining it up next to a row of stuffed animals and a poinsettia she has kept alive since Christmas. She had rearranged the animals inside the ark, putting a zebra on a step to peek out.  Each time I visit, without making much fuss, I continue to look to see what new thing is going on in Noah’s Ark.  I fully expect one day to see the mother lion in the arms of her favorite plush kitten, the one she likes to take on an outing to the coffee shop. 

One time one of the bluebirds that perches on the top went missing, and it still hasn’t turned up. It may be in one of her drawers, or it may be in somebody else’s room since people wander into her room now and then and touch her animals.  I have learned not to worry about things like that.  If Audrey isn’t enjoying it, somebody else is.  The bluebird may reappear when we least suspect it, like Noah’s dove.  If it disappears altogether like the raven, I will take that as a sign that everything is still okay. 

To round out the theme, and to give her another connection, I got a picture book about Noah’s Ark to go with the other children’s books with animals that we like to share.    The zebra peeking out of the ark on the cover of this fabric book looks a lot like the plastic zebra she keeps on the front step of her ark.  While she loves to point to the animals in the book, her favorite picture is the one after the page with the rain beating down, the one that shows the sun coming out and nature glowing. It is a happy picture.   

Noah’s Ark may not be what every caregiver needs to give to a loved one to pass the time.  The best thing to do is to pick up on the patient’s interests and go from there.  When Audrey first went into the nursing home, one of my brothers bought her watercolors, colored pencils, and pads of paper.  In her earlier days, Audrey had a lot of talent.   We could not get her interested in picking up a pencil, although she does enjoy watching one of us draw for her, something that we do often and something that her visitors also will end up doing if she pulls out her sketchbook.  

Rather than imposing our wishes (or hopes) on her, we came to learn that we need to follow our mother’s cue.  Stuffed animals, and the plastic ones in her Noah’s Ark, allow Audrey to feel that she is still as nurturing as she always was.  They allow her to play and to make believe and to make animal sounds.  She can talk to these animals and say whatever she likes, and they never ask her to repeat herself. I have taken a cue from these animals myself, letting Audrey talk to me as much as she likes,  and talking back even when I am not quite sure what we are talking about.

Of course, animals are just one part of the fabric of my mother’s new life in a nursing home which involves a number of routines. Claustrophobic from childhood, Audrey generally does not participate in group activities, but will sit in the small living room or dining room and visit with a few other residents and anybody else who walks in the front door. She enjoys socializing with people, now more than ever before.  When she first became aphasic, living alone, she became somewhat silent and almost sullen.  Now, past caring, she is as garrulous as she once was. 

The other day when I showed up to visit, she was talking to another resident who was holding a stuffed bear with especially long legs and arms.  The two of them, in so many words, had the most delightful conversation about how cute this bear was.  I could tell that my mother wanted to hold the bear, and her new friend let her.


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