Journalist Lauren Kessler's memoir Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's is populated with the usual uber-depressing Alzheimer's wards and close-up details of adults becoming infants.
Yet a quarter of the way through, you may wonder if you're reading the wrong book. The reason: it's an Alzheimer’s tale that’s warm, uplifting, even hopeful, qualities not normally associated with the illness. This odd dichotomy—joy atop a ravaging disease—makes this book a refreshing standout.
Seeking atonement for neglecting her own mother who died a slow, agonizing Alzheimer's death, Kessler decides to sign on as a bottom-rung caregiver at a West Coast Alzheimer's facility she calls Maplewood. A gifted writer, Kessler weaves in and out of chronological order, shifting between regretful memories of her mother and present-day work on the wards.
"I cared alone for my mother for exactly eighteen hours—I consulted my watch often," she guiltily acknowledges upfront in the story. "Beginning when my husband and I picked her up at the airport and ending when I signed her in at the care facility the next afternoon."
As a writer, she sniffs a good story, but as a daughter, Kessler wants to better understand the illness that destroyed her mother. She works for several months as a minimum-wage, stridently overworked, overstressed caregiver who feeds, bathes, and toilets a half-dozen Alzheimer's patients daily. What she doesn't know when she starts the job is how much she'll love doing what others would surely find abhorrent.
Kessler's charges on the ward vary in lucidity and mobility. Yet they all have distinctive, engaging personalities. There's prefeminist former executive Marianne, agile though lost in a fantasy that she's still a bossy honcho at a women's retreat; and Hayes, a 91-year-old former stoic who under the influence of the disease becomes a talkative, attention-craving, Borscht Belt comic.
What runs the show at Maplewood is Alzheimer's ability to peel away a person's former mask to allow what's underneath to surface—pleasant or not. It's also what gives Dancing with Rose such humanity. Kessler shows that for all the trauma, heartache, and unhappiness the disease brings to families, if viewed from a different perspective, Alzheimer's is not the end of personhood.
"There's one thing about folks at Maplewood, about people with Alzheimer's in general: they are real, even the ones . . . who are seriously deluded. They don't have ulterior motives. They don't manipulate. They don't play games. They just are," explains Kessler. Indeed, in Dancing with Rose, patients experience laughter, happiness, relationships, even budding romance.
What's scandalous here isn't merely the illness's disrespect for human dignity—though that comes through loud and clear—but also an elder-care culture that allows a multibillion dollar industry to pay workers minimum wage to do back-breaking, dismal daily work taking care of the highly infirm. It's to the amazement of Kessler—and her readers—that neither she nor many of her coworkers find the work degrading. Rather, they see it as life-affirming.
Far from a depressing work, Dancing with Rose spotlights a unique, life-choosing alternative view of a disease that demands just about everything from its victims.
Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications.