Mattie’s Incarceration

I was working as a personal advocate in a dementia care facility and writing magazine articles about how the present-day eldercare system was antiquated and totally unprepared for the Baby Boomer generation.

One of the residents, Mattie was 53 years old and diagnosed with early onset dementia. At first appearances she seemed so normal she was often mistaken as a visitor. Her determination to escape forced the facility to post a sign at the door alerting the public not to allow her to leave. But now three months after being admitted her rapid decline was so obvious that the sign was no longer necessary.

Mattie had worked as a doctor at a drug rehabilitation center and during one of our frequent conversations she told me she loved her work. One day she was wandering the halls muttering repeatedly, “I’m a prisoner. They have no right!” Then she went out to the garden, the only place that brought her solace.

The daily activities featured bingo, art which was mostly children’s coloring books and music from the Second World War. One day Mattie stormed out of the Bing Crosby sing along shouting, “Same old thing …this f..king shit gets me crazy

Many residents complain about being in a facility but whenever it came from Mattie, I always saw my reflection in those frustrated eyes. I was born in 1948, and as an early Boomer, I was staring at the looming possibility of some day being trapped in a system designed to care for my mother? No matter how much you dress it up, most dementia facilities are mental hospital modals: locked doors with alarms, long hallways, childlike activities, nurses dispensing meds, and little interaction beyond the mandatory physical care. Will my cherished individuality be warehoused into a neatly packaged egg carton demanding factory sameness?

One day the Florida weather was a scorching 95 degrees and the door to Mattie’s precious garden refuge locked. She was relentlessly pushing the door saying, “I need outta here! Don’t belong here! At that point she enlisted the aid of several wandering residents to help her push the door. Together they managed to push it open, the alarms went off and everyone scattered. By the time the aide arrived, Maggie was halfway over the garden wall. As they lead her away she smiled mischievously and whispered, “I’m in deep shit?

I imagined my future 90-year-old self in a facility organizing rebellions; dirty diaper revolts to get the Beatles on the play list, hunger strikes for a healthier menu and medical marijuana instead of behavior meds. As if reading my mind she yelled at me, “Change this! You fight! as she was led away struggling.

Working as an advocate included written reports to the families on the care of the resident and this was threatening to most management. I was informed by the administrator in a syrupy monotone voice “You are paid to work with your particular customer not the other residents. So in the future please refrain from interacting with Mattie.

I never considered anyone I worked with to be customers. They are individuals with emotions, and needs. Whenever a resident wanted to talk or needed assistance, I’d try to help. However, if your job is administration of a warehouse I guess residents would be considered customers or products to keep organized.

Shortly after my encounter with administrator, Nurse Ratchit, I saw Mattie heavily medicated wandering the halls with no life in her eyes. All I could think about was her pleading words, “Change this, you fight.”

Words which still haunt me.

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