My mom died ten years ago today.
Today at work, an elderly woman with dementia has nowhere to go, no one to see. We all – and I truly mean everyone who works public service at my large urban library – panic for hours that she will end up, still, when the library closes, with nowhere to go, no one to see.
She is in her 90s, dressed in hospital garb that is mostly hidden by a long winter coat tied snugly around her waist. She shuffles in a way I associate with dementia in someone younger (the physical signals of Alzheimer’s scream to those of us who know it well) but isn’t at all alarming in someone her age. She struggles with a walker and one of the largest wheeled-suitcases I’ve seen. Or maybe it’s the bright floral pattern that makes it command attention, seem so huge. She shuffles, struggles, smiles. One of our security officers immediately takes up conversation with her, taking over transportation of the ungainly suitcase. I think: I work with kind people. I think: Is this all she has? I think: How will she manage the rest of today – tomorrow, next week, any other day, really – without someone beside her?
The woman doesn’t know where she lives. She doesn’t know where she’s been or why she’s dressed as she is. She does, however, recall stories of her life and her friends from decades ago.
The police are called. Can the Crisis Team help? Four police officers arrive an hour or so later with the news that they’ll call the Crisis Team. But there is no guarantee that they will come. And, if they do, they might not be able to do anything.
Staff situate her at a table in the coffee shop area of the library and they bring her food. Everyone working on Level 3 keeps their eyes on her; staff from Level 5 periodically peer down from their overlook to check on her; other patrons and customers in the coffee shop are kind and gentle with her. It goes unsaid that we are all fearing the worst, that closing time will come and she will have nowhere to go.
Finally, two men from the crisis team arrive. We are jubilant. Something good will come of this. She will be safe. But then, inexplicably, the two men leave.
She is alone.
My colleagues jump into action again. There are phone calls to make, noise to be made. We used to have a part-time social worker at our library, but the position has been vacant for nearly three months. We have felt the strain, and when I say “we” I mean not only staff, but also dozens of people who come to the library each day looking for help getting housing, getting identification, getting on with their lives. Librarians do what we can to help, as we have been for years. But the need is so great and the systems so complicated, and, honestly, we didn’t know all the gaps there were in our service until we had a social worker alongside us.
This story has a short-term resolution and long-term devastation. The phone calls and strategizing work, and someone comes to bring her to a shelter and connect her with services.
I am relieved for her, but far from happy. This should not happen in our city. Not in anyone’s city. She is just one of many.
Why did I start this by telling you that my mother died ten years ago? Partly because she died of Alzheimer’s. Partly because the woman at the library reminded me of my mother with her shiny white hair, endearing smile, and the soft depth in her eyes as she seems to be searching for something she can almost reach—and then it slips away. And partly because I woke up with an unbearable sadness that compounded throughout the day.
This sadness is bigger than me, bigger than the people I know and talk to every day. I imagine that half the people in my world, particularly those I work with and interact with at the library, feel the same way.
I don’t know what to do about it.