When I was in college, I dated a guy who shared a house with two other guys. They decided to take in a fourth roommate to off-set the cost of their rent and utilities. That’s how I met Dave.
Within a couple of days of his arrival, my roommate and I went over to my then-boyfriend’s house, but before we got there, we were warned, “About Dave. Treat him like furniture. Just don’t sit on him.” It seemed that it took very little time for their new roomie to find his way into the living room and onto the couch across from the TV. From what I was told, he was living on the couch. He ate and slept there. They felt somewhat certain that he occasionally left to attend class or use the bathroom, but no one had witnessed him ever getting up.
They had a party, and Dave remained sprawled across the couch watching TV. He wouldn’t move over to make room for anyone else, and when people spoke to him, he just turned up the volume. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, but he really didn’t socialize with anyone either, and so “About Dave. Treat him like furniture. Just don’t sit on him” became what people said to others who were about to meet him.
All these years later, Dave is on my mind. First of all, I wonder what was his deal? Was he really just anti-social, but so addicted to television that he couldn’t get off the couch? Was he intentionally being a nuisance? Was this his best effort at fitting in? Was he suffering from a more serious problem, like depression or autism? I don’t even remember his last name and so even if I wanted to track him down and ask him all these questions, I probably couldn’t. There are a lot of guys named Dave in this world.
Secondly, I think about that phrase, “Treat him like furniture. Just don’t sit on him.” It seems so insensitive to say that about another human being—ever, but to be fair, people tried talking with Dave and he ignored them. People tried to include him, and he just wasn’t interested in being included. So, what do we do with people like that? I guess we end up treating them like furniture whether we intend to or not.
Sometimes, I want to treat my mother-in-law like furniture.
It’s really an over-simplification to say, “She has good days and bad days” but more often than not, those are the repetitive words I use when asked how she is doing. She has days in which she may not communicate effectively or appropriately, but she makes an effort. She doesn’t feed herself, but she does eat. She groans, she sneezes, she moves. On these good days, I make an effort to interact with her. I’ll ask her what kind of soup she wants and she will answer by saying “whatever” or she may offer me a hand gesture that is the Ecuadorian equivalent to shooting the bird. No, it’s not pleasant interaction, but clearly, we are both human beings communicating something to one another.
And then, there are days like today. She sat stone-faced staring blankly in front of her. She said nothing. Her vitals were fine. Her blood pressure, temperature, and blood sugar were all within the range of average, but we might as well have been caring for a corpse—or a piece of furniture—or any other inanimate object.
I used to say the hardest days were the days in which she was active and somewhat lucid because she was prone to angry fits in which she would hurl insults in both English and Spanish, yell at my children, and if she could reach anyone, she might physically attack them. Or she would be demanding, calling me to her repeatedly always wanting something small or for me to sit her and hold her hand. “Stay” she would beg, but I would be in the middle of cooking supper and not wanting it to burn. She wouldn’t take “just a minute” for an answer—even when I was tending to my children, her grandchildren. I felt conflicted, torn.
The first time she sat motionless and barely responding, we panicked. We called an EMS. She spent a week in the hospital and the diagnosis was dehydration. At the support group I attend monthly, I learned nothing about this was unusual—the dehydration, the blankness, the panic, the hospital stay. The facilitator said that it is nearly impossible to keep someone in my mother-in-law’s condition adequately hydrated without an IV. I asked her what a nursing home would do, and she told me that it would depend on the wishes of the family. Some might choose the IV, and others might recognize that this is “near the end” and let nature take its course.
The doctor at the hospital had said as much, too. He referred us to Hospice. A Hospice nurse visited and said, “Not yet” because once she returned home, she was swallowing again.
So, now, we have these episodes in which my mother-in-law behaves more like furniture than a person and we wait and we do what we can to make her comfortable. Maybe she will be more animated and verbal tomorrow if we can get some fluids into her. Maybe this state will last days and signify the beginning or the end. Maybe she won’t wake up at all. But we aren’t panicking. We aren’t calling an EMS. We are waiting, and we do what we can to keep her hydrated without an IV or a feeding tube.
We could take her to the hospital, but unless she is in pain, why would we? That’s the other thing I learned from that last hospitalization: With every medical intervention, a person with dementia loses mental ground they can’t make up. And my God, hasn’t my mother-in-law lost enough already? She’s not furniture. I don’t want to prolong her life with polishing and repairs, and I don’t want to put her in storage.
Furniture days are some of the hardest because of the waiting.