caring for aging adults

Illustration: Julien Pacaud

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All Together Now
As a girl playing dress-up, I always tried to channel my great-aunt Holly: fiery red lips, exotic silk scarves, gravity-defying coiffure. Holly's life was as outsize as her look. A journalist and playwright, she reported from Bangladesh and Burma on Christian relief efforts and wrote provocative musical revues; her swish apartment was always packed with thespians, writers, and theologians. When I visited her in New York City, she whisked me off to Serendipity 3 for frozen hot chocolate, then to Broadway for Peter Pan.

Holly was so delightfully eccentric that when she started answering the door in her underthings (she was 87 by then; I was 31 and working in Manhattan), I wasn't all that alarmed. Only after she began leaving her apartment late at night and subsisting on cheese puffs did my cousin Ed take her to a gerontologist, who confirmed she had Alzheimer's.

Holly never had children, but a group of younger friends and relatives quickly christened itself Holly's Committee. Together we compiled an exhaustive cache of information on her medical history, pills, account numbers, and contacts. "The Notebook" also included sections on food ("Likes grapefruit and melon. Bananas occasionally") and social life, with a reminder that she loved visiting the American Museum of Natural History.

For the Committee, caregiving was not an isolating burden, but a communal enterprise, with inside jokes ("She's inventing emergencies to keep me sequestered in her apartment") and commiseration ("She smacked the new nurse upside the head with a Vanity Fair"). For the most part, we kept Holly safe and happy—and each other sane.

A year later, when Holly's condition deteriorated, we transitioned her to an Alzheimer's facility, where nurses said she was once again "the life of the party."

As her committee's social chair, I wasn't surprised.

— Hannah Wallace