In early 2007 I finally have the time to call Lynn about interviewing her, and she's thrilled. She remembers asking me to write an article for our paper—"I want to help people," she says repeatedly—but by now her recall of dementia statistics, let alone Latin tree names, is fading.
Gone, too, is her beloved house. She's living in a small suite in an assisted-living facility, a move recommended by a geriatrics team after daughter-in-law Katie reported finding Lynn's medicine mixed up in the cat food, cat food in the ice cream, and cat feces all over the basement floor. Lynn can no longer manage food preparation, not even the making of a simple sandwich, and has lost 40 pounds.
She's already reading on a fifth-grade level, with spatial abilities scoring in the mental retardation range. (All throw rugs on the carpet must be removed because they trip her up—she doesn't know she can step on them.) Larry is mad at himself for not having her tested earlier, when drugs such as Aricept might have slowed her decline. Her diagnosis "shot the hell out of my denial," he tells me later.
Unlike many American families, the Forbishes had discussed long-term-care insurance before they found themselves in crisis, but Lynn had rejected Larry's advice to buy it, even though she had a family history of dementia. She planned to buy the insurance after she retired, not by the often recommended age of 59. (A 2006 AARP survey confirmed widespread misperceptions about long-term care, reporting that 52 percent of people 45 and older wrongly think Medicare will pay for assisted living; another 18 percent weren't sure.)
These are probably not the facts Lynn had in mind when she asked me to write her story, but after learning that her facility costs $3,900 a month, they are foremost in mine. When I arrive with a cup of her favorite coffee, she jokes about her condition: "Hey, maybe I'm just making all this dementia stuff up so I can be waited on!" she says, giggling.
She introduces me to her boyfriend, Don, a retired lawyer who lives down the hall and has a different form of dementia. "He still drives!" she brags. "And he has a car!" Never mind that they recently got lost on their way to the Cat Fanciers' Association show and drove around Roanoke for three hours, without seeing a single Persian or Egyptian Mau.
She shows me her massive movie collection but complains that neither she nor Don can operate the VCR, and she can't recall her favorite actor's name. "It was the guy who played Columbo.... No, it was, it, it, it..."
It was another actor named Peter: Peter Sellers. She thinks of it later, in the middle of another conversation.
Parkinson's-like tremors have developed in her hands, a common symptom of Lewy body, and occasionally Lynn sees people who are not there: A pair of girls are in her room and she's worried they might get hurt. She frantically summons a personal-care assistant, who phones Katie, who calms Lynn down by telling her, falsely, that policemen are on their way to rescue the girls and all is well.
Their relationship was once strained several years ago after Katie's 3-year-old daughter returned from a visit to Nana's spewing four-letter words. But now she and Lynn talk for an hour on the phone every night. Lynn discusses her boyfriend's fascination with John Wayne movies (which she can't stand), and Katie relays the national and world news of the day. Sometimes when Lynn is agitated, she begs Katie to phone their relatives—Lynn's daughter in Wisconsin, a sister in Texas—to remind them that dementia runs in families and they need to be vigilant.
Sundays are officially "Nana days": The whole family goes to church and then to lunch at Lynn's favorite spot, the Olive Garden. Lynn tries eating her fettuccine with a knife, and when Larry casually replaces it with a fork, she laughs and carries on eating. The tart tongue is in retreat, the old hurts vanished.
We Hear You!