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My mother’s adjustment to the left coast, after spending most of her life in Manhattan, went more smoothly than anyone expected. Despite her struggle with Alzheimer’s, the first 10 months at her new senior residence in Los Angeles went off without a hitch.
Then around the one-year mark, something changed. I’d show up and find her sitting away from the group, her head dropped to the side, surrendered to the forces of gravity and a desire to sleep. When people talked to her, she looked blankly into the distance. She had lost interest in food, one of her great passions. I started to doubt my decision to uproot her from the Upper West Side.
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I knew there were senior services that provide companionship — programs with names like Visiting Angels, Senior Helpers and Good Company Senior Care. But I wanted something else for my 84-year-old mother. I wanted someone who could make her laugh. I was a professional comedian for years, but when she looks in my eyes, she just sees a daughter she can’t communicate with anymore. I took to social media. “Looking for a funny person with an interest in geriatrics. Paying gig. Part time,” I posted. Within minutes the phone rang, a friend from New York.
“Call my friend Sue. She’s a comic — was, she’s kind of over it now. She wants to work with seniors.” I phoned Sue immediately. She has one of those rare voices, equal parts warmth and candor. We made a date for her to meet with my mother.
“Mom, this is Sue,” I said, steering her wheelchair so we could sit close together.
“What’s up, Muriel?” Sue asked. My mother stared ahead. Without missing a beat, Sue moved to make eye contact with her. My mother looked away.
“You don’t want to talk, do you, Muriel?” Nothing.
“I get that.” Sue said. “Some days I don’t want to talk, either. When someone gets in my face I think, ‘Schmuck, do I look like I want to talk?’ ”
My mother turned her head back to Sue and smiled. Sue repeated herself, this time with a little more moxie. “Schmuck, do I look like I want to talk?”
My mother smiled even bigger, then laughed and blurted out “schmuck!” like a kid getting away with something. She looked at Sue for a reaction. Sue laughed heartily and then, like any comedian, topped her. “Hey, schmuck! Do I look like I want to talk?” she asked, bigger, like a character from The Sopranos.
“Schmuck!” my mother yelled back, laughing so hard she almost couldn’t get the word out. I looked around, feeling slightly self-conscious by this schmuck-off: Maybe people nearby wouldn’t appreciate it. Except the two of them were having so much fun.