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Archive for the ‘Great Depression’ Category

Ken and I are part of the generation born during The Great Depression, and for years our title was just that:

white plate

A white plate helps distracted patients with Alzheimer's

Depression Kids.  I suppose we still are, just as “Baby Boomers” will always be “Boomers.”

During our early years, a good percentage of the population was out of work, and the economy then was in much worse condition that it is today. If one was lucky enough to have a job it was often sporadic; when there was work you worked, when the work ran out the boss sent you home with pay for the time put in: no sick leave, no paid vacation, no unemployment, and no medical.  Benefits?  There were no benefits.  Well, I guess there was one: having a job was the benefit.

Housewives watched every penny, nickel and dime striving to make ends meet.  Axioms, still of great worth, grew out of the struggle.  “Waste not, want not,” was my grandmother’s favorite, and she often quoted scripture when it was applicable.  “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was another favorite of probably every housewife in the neighborhood.  Time and time again she put those words to a test transforming the good part of a torn shirt into “new” underwear for one of the younger boys using her sewing skills and an old treadle sewing machine.  Uppermost, however, was food; the mother of the house gave strict orders, “Clean your plate.”  The moms of America didn’t have to add the guilt trip, “People throughout the world are starving,” because people in America were also starving.  Waste was not allowed.

I suppose when you grow up understanding value, especially the value of food when you’re hungry, the words “clean your plate” can almost be redundant.  So it’s understandable that life-long habits are hard to suppress.  I recall my father breaking off a piece of bread, dropping it into the last puddle of gravy on his plate.  Stabbing the bread with his fork he mopped the plate clean before surrendering it to be washed.

Nor did my father stand alone in the practice.  Just about every red-blooded American did the same.  A clean plate was a show of gratitude and appreciation.

Many of us would have to plead guilty of this “offense” especially when taking one more biscuit from Thanksgiving’s basket and sopping up a little more giblet gravy.  While the Emily Posts of the world frown on the practice, especially in public, we do, on occasion sneak by with mopping the plate at home.  However, when I see Ken stretching his own boyhood habits (distorted by AD) it’s a little different.  Bread is cut up as if it were a piece of meat and if it’s gone or not recognized he uses a cut carrot, an apple slice or a couple of green beans to swab his plate, which he does at every meal.

I’ve watched how the rest of his eating habits have changed during the years of battling Alzheimer’s.  When there were only two of us (after the kids had grown and gone) presentation became more important than when we all sat down together eating family style.  With just Ken and me the dinner plates were filled at the stove and served as if we were eating out.  Now days, I still arrange the food in a pictorial manner, but I notice that before long he has stirred everything together making dinner a gooey goulash, although he does appreciate what I cook and often states, “This is good.”  The nice presentation has vanished, but the goulash is still served on a china plate.

Years ago I read a story (true or not I do not know) about a family who had taken in the wife’s mother, who might have been an Alzheimer’s victim.  The story did not tell, only that she was a crazy old thing who would occasionally break her dish after she had eaten.  In frustration, the daughter bought her mother a wooden bowl.  Each meal was served in the bowl: accidents still happened, but there were no more broken plates.

Eventually, the old woman died and the daughter tossed the wooden bowl into the garbage.  The young granddaughter, who for years had observed her grandmother eating from the assigned utensil, retrieved the bowl from the trash. “Why did you bring that old thing back into the house?” the mother asked.  Thoughtfully, the young girl answered, “I need to save it for when you get old.”

No matter how inconvenient it might be I believe AD victims need to have the same respect as the rest of us.  I felt sad about the old woman having to eat from a wooden bowl, and also felt as if the younger mother deserved her own daughter’s conclusion, which might have been, “When you get old you’re not worth much, not even a real plate.”

Don’t get me wrong; at a picnic or any other appropriate place, or if it’s your chosen lifestyle paper or plastic is just fine.  Just don’t use a cheap substitute as “punishment,” or because that particular “someone” isn’t worth the best of what’s available.

Often AD patients clean their plates so thoroughly they want to include in their meal the patterns under the glaze.  I’ve watched Ken do this time and time again.  My mother did it as well during her years with Alzheimer’s.

One evening at a friend’s home, as we completed an pre-Christmas dinner, Ken kept scraping at the Christmas tree design in the center of his plate.  “Don’t do that,” pleaded our hostess, “It will ruin the dish.”  Yet Ken continued “cleaning his plate.”  Other than the irritating sound, reminding me of finger nails on a chalk board, it would have been difficult to inflict permanent damage on the Christmas ware before Ken gave up and relinquished his plate, which, by the way, was clean as a whistle.

“Next time he comes,” my hostess said firmly, “he’ll be eating off plastic.”  Sure enough, on the next visit, where she had prepared a lovely pre-New Year’s dinner, my friend had a very special Holiday plate just for him.  While the rest of us ate off the good china, he ate from a festive plate made of very heavy paper with a plastic coating – a throwaway.  It was nice, but to me it was still paper.

For some time I have noticed that he often tries to include the flowers or scattered leaves adorning our dishes as part of his meal even after the plate is thoroughly clean and all food is gone.  I doubt that scraping the edge of a fork or spoon over the surface does any more damage to the glaze than does a steak knife cutting meat.  However, the finger-nail-chalk-board noise was getting to me.  Problem solved: I bought some plain white china plates for us to use with absolutely no decoration — no flowers, leaves and definitely no Christmas trees.  Even at lunch he gets his sandwich on one of the new plates, and if it gets broken that’s okay.  We have more.  He uses what I use whether it’s china, paper or plastic – whatever is appropriate.  But I do draw the line; absolutely no wooden bowls.

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My mother was the most charitable person I have ever known.  From the time I was a little girl I remember strangers standing at our front door while she made a sandwich as he waited, or fed another lunch in exchange for washing our 3rd-floor windows both inside and out.  There was never a thought these people were anything other than what they claimed – down, out and hungry — as she allowed them to work for food during those Great Depression years. 

It wasn’t as though we were much better off with my dad doing piece work for a small steel company.  When the order was filled he went home with his few dollars to buy food, pay the rent, and hopefully the utilities.  Yet my mother managed to stretch the meager dollars to care for us and to help the less fortunate.  She and my dad prided themselves on never going on “Relief,” which was the welfare program of the 1930s.  They were fiercely independent, and, perhaps, to a fault proud, but that’s who they were.  They could take care of themselves and they did.

During World War II and the peaceful, economic healthy years which followed, I watched my mother continue her service to mankind through our church and other philanthropic organizations.  Nor did she choose to treat herself to some delicacy at the soda fountain or bake shop.  Rather than be frivolous she would take the money saved and donate the coins to a worthy cause.  Mama always felt fortunate and blessed to be self-sustaining.  This pattern continued for both my parents all of their lives.

One day, late in life, Mama was taking a bundle of newspapers to the garage for recycling.  Stepping down the one step of their entryway, she lost her balance and fell.  Bruised and bleeding she picked herself up from the cement, grateful no bones were broken.  Stalwart that she was, my mother insisted ice packs and a little rest were all she needed.

The next day, John, a representative from our church stopped by their home for his regular monthly visit. Finding her battered and bruised he asked what had happened.  Hearing Mama tell of her fall, he immediately said, “Irene, you need a hand rail at your front door.”

Sounds of a hammer and saw awakened my parents the very next morning.   Investigating they found John building the needed hand rail.  “I can do that,” protested my father.  “Now you won’t have to,” answered John, continuing his project.  “Then let me pay you for the materials,” Dad insisted.  “You can’t afford me,” replied John.   Humbly my parents accepted their gift.

Later my mother told me that she was surprised at her feelings of submission – of allowing someone to fill a need for them.  Being the giver all of her life she didn’t quite understand feeling so good about receiving.  Then she thought of the triangle of doing God’s work.  “Without people in need, and we were in need,” she explained, “other people might never have the opportunity to serve, to experience being charitable. With God as the director, I became part of the triangle.  Instead of feeling embarrassed about accepting John’s charitable offering I felt humble and grateful, and very warm inside.  I guess part of my learning was to be a grateful receiver.”

My mother’s last years took her into the depths of Alzheimer’s.  Slowly she faded from the vibrant woman she was into a child I could only imagine I might have known.  A little temperamental and stubborn at times, caring for her was still relatively easy.  Her walk with the demon of diseases took a little more than four years before she passed on peacefully in her sleep. 

In another dimension my mother is probably musing about the last chapters in her book of life as she continues to grow in her appreciation of being a grateful receiver.  Knowing my mother, however,  she’s also back doing God’s work: charity, which is the pure love of Christ. 

Care giving for a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s is of that same charity, but is so often a thankless job.  The thought of being part of God’s triangle somehow escapes as the tedious days and endless months and years continue with no relief in sight.  And gratitude for this horrible disease?  There is none.  Yet, during this time of my accident recovery I have found endless gratitude, especially in finding such capable employees.  Both of Ken’s caregivers, Ben and David, have my utmost appreciation.  At the end of their day, I would imagine they feel downtrodden and exhausted, but they continue caring for Ken with love and kindness.  And while Ken is the recipient of their goodness, I am the one filled with gratitude, making me the grateful receiver.

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