“Her. Over there,” my supervisor points. My eyes follow her finger and land on an elderly woman gently rocking in a cushioned chair. She envelops herself in a dreamy state as she stares out of the small window that only looks out to parking spaces. Her eyes aren’t glazed with boredom. With a smile in her eyes and calm painted upon her lips, she looks outside as if the pavement is the cerulean waves of the Pacific lapping against her window. This misplaced interest isn’t unusual, considering the fact that I’m in the Lilac Unit.
I don’t even notice that I, like Catherine, am mesmerized by a melancholic image until my supervisor’s words invade my mindscape. “Oh, be careful. She can have a bit of a temper,” Melissa lets out a small chuckle, which resembles the kind adults emit when a child is nervous about something puerile. She hands me the Ziploc bag, on which a peeling sticker reads “Catherine.”
I gingerly approach Catherine like a lion tamer who inches toward a new, potentially dangerous lion. As I draw nearer, I am taken aback by Catherine’s hair. Her golden-gray locks are painted with streaks of blush pink (the unfortunate aftermath of sleeping with her lipstick open).
“Hi, Catherine. Is it okay if I sit here?” I ask her in my high-register voice which I reserve for especially nerve-wracking situations.
“Mmm, yes, goody goody,” she mumbles.
Despite what many people think about the residents of assisted living centers, Catherine’s appearance is put-together. Her hair—albeit a conglomerate of dusty rose, silver, and golden blonde—is neatly trimmed and slightly curled. She dons a navy blouse and khaki pants that end just above her ankles. Shimmering gold ballet flats tipped with a bow cover her plump, purplish feet. A gold bar with “Catherine” engraved on it wraps around her wrist, secured by a thick gold chain. Her nails, painted a light pink, match both her lipstick and her hair. Catherine’s choice of outfit reveals much more about her than her fashion sense—in retrospect, the juxtaposition of her unintentionally edgy hair and her classic outfit typify Catherine’s essence.
I lower myself onto a plush chair next to Catherine and dig into the Music and Memories Ziploc bag. I pull out an iPod Shuffle, a paper copy of her playlist, and headphones for the two of us. I’m a bit wary of conducting Music and Memories with Catherine, especially if she could be disagreeable. She doesn’t appear that way at the moment, but I know nothing about caring for people with dementia. Thankfully, Music and Memories is supposed to be an easy way that I can care for Catherine. Her playlist has been tailored just to her liking by her coordinator, who went through a checklist of genres and “the greats” within each of them in order to find the music Catherine connects with best. As her brain function begins to deteriorate, this playlist is supposed to defrost the windshield of her memories.
Usually, the residents choose Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the like. But not Catherine. As I gently position the headphones on her ear, she chuckles, “Oh goody goody. I like to listen to my music.”
I turn one corner of my mouth upward, but it quickly falls in confusion when I glance at the songs on her playlist—they’re all polka. I know almost nothing about polka and this ignorance increases my doubts. After all, Catherine has only said “goody goody” and a few joking expletives thus far. As my chest tightens with the fear of failure, I hope this will work. “Beer Barrel Polka” streams through the headphones and I anxiously study Catherine.
Nothing at first. Then, gradually, the tapping of her foot against the tile. Then, the slapping of both her hands against her thighs along to the beat. Then, humming the melody. Then, “da-da-daa-ing” to every note. Then, speaking German.
I jump a little in my seat. There are no words in this song. Catherine spoke to me in another language without provocation. I am struck by the power of music, which was just able to cross barriers most researchers cannot.
“Oh, I used to listen to this all the time when I was younger. My mom and dad played it a lot. You know, I haven’t seen my dad in a while. Do you think he’ll drop by soon?”
Still stunned by what had just transpired, I don’t register her question and the implications that come with it.
“Sweetie?” Catherine asks, bringing me back to the present. She brushes my hair away from my name-tag without asking. “Olivia,” she murmurs, “such an unusual name. It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Catherine,” I reply with a smile.
This was only the first moment in which I found myself past the gates of Catherine’s spitfire exterior and into her affectionate interior. In the days to come, I would dance back and forth across the borders of Catherine’s impish punches and repetitions of “clock ‘em out” and the unprovoked old-lady kisses on the cheek followed by her litanies of “I love you.”