Monday, January 12, 2009


  He was the type of guy who always had a comb in his back pocket. He never went one day without his shirt and slacks pressed and his style in many ways made up for his petite stature. Those who love him describe his personality as polar. He either shared his love openly and completely, or he was set in his old self-centered ways. A love-hate relationship it seemed. 

Now, near the end of his life, despite the ease in which he belts out profanities when asked to to clean himself up or go to the doctor's office, his family shows only unconditional love in return. His behaviors would push most families to move him into a nursing home or more intensive care environment. Not this family. The same stubbornness this frail old man exhibited through out his life has now manifested itself into his two loyal adult children. 

There is something about the shrinking of the brain that causes those with Alzheimer's disease to resist showering, baths, or anything that requires large quantities of water. His family had no success with in-home caregivers and found that his episodes of profanity turned into aggressive physical confrontations. No one would try and help this family bathe this man and his condition was nearing unbearable. He came for a visit to see if we could help him clean up to his pre-Alzheimer's level of cleanliness. We had our work cut out for us. He hadn't had a thorough shower in over 6 months.

He walks tall at 5'1", about 4 inches shorter than he did 40 years ago. His chin up, his swagger pronounced and his flirtation with the ladies more active than ever. To most he presents as a 'dirty old man'. My first impression was no different. His first showers were terrible, unimaginable really. As one of the stronger and larger in stature (uhm hm...) staff members I worked with another staff member to try and find ways to help him want to shower. We had little success. We learned that while this man's physical strength was dwindling, his vocal chords and diaphragm were well in tact. Our shower's included language that took some getting used to. We were sluts, bitches, whores.... the sexist language was almost too much for me and my feminist ego to endure. Then I reminded myself, it was his disease talking. His social filter was non-existent and his only defense in getting us to stop the shower was to use disrespectful language. Unfortunately for him, it didn't work. We slowly undressed him and helped him into the shower where his mood immediately changed for the better as his body began to smell clean and fresh. After drying him off and dressing him, we would assist him in brushing his teeth, shaving and brushing his hair. His mood was almost always good once we were finished. He would re-enter the activity room a restored man ready to engage conversation with the ladies.

We have been showering this gentleman one time a week for nearly 8 months. He has good days and bad days. Lately he has had more bad days than good. He stayed home for nearly 3 weeks after falling very ill. His weakness was unexplained and luckily he was able to slowly recover, although it was clear that he had lost cognitive and physical abilities. Despite his newly acquired losses, his comfort level with our program was unaffected. The day he returned, he looked defeated and just plain exhausted. He resisted his shower, but less than usual. His energy level was low and his stubborn efforts were minimal. He had aged.

We often take turns completing the after shower care. It was my turn to shave and I mean shave him. This small man grew a beard in 2 1/2 weeks that most men I know would be envious of. I marveled at it for a few minutes. Then I realized that I would be shaving it. It was so long that we needed clippers to do an initial trim. We didn't have any though, so with the razor, shaving cream, a sink basin filled with warm water and a large towel we worked together to shave his face. It took us 55 minutes.  This happened last Tuesday and I haven't been able to shake this experience. Usually personal care is pretty straight forward, but this shave was symbolic. 

This man, who at times uses offensive sexist language, has really grown on me and by shaving down his thick overgrowth, it was almost as if we had restored something inside him. I saw his eyes transform. We started out with blank stares into the mirror and when we were done he looked at himself with renewed confidence and dignity. If it were allowed, I would have photographed his face. It was so powerful to me.

I often think about my purpose.... my purpose at work... my purpose on this earth... my purpose in my relationships.... I still don't have the answers, but I can tell you that completing the simple act of shaving that frail man's course beard made me feel like I was  a part of something very special. In that moment he felt dashing and confident. He didn't seem insecure, angry or defensive. He was again just Mr. W.


Trevor and Sara said...

Bethany, this is by FAR your most beautiful post...I am speechless right now. Your life has many purposes, and this - "this" being yoyur life's work - is clearly one of them.

Elizabeth said...

I have chills! What a great story. I may need to save this to read whenever I have a bad day.