I teach writing and printmaking classes at senior homes in Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve kept a journal of the memorable things I’ve seen and heard.
While teaching at a memory care facility in Glendale, I noticed a resident wearing a nametag sticker inscribed with the name “Eugene.” Midway through class, a female resident pulled off the man’s nametag and stuck it to her own blouse. Eugene saw the woman wearing his nametag and asked, “If you’re Eugene, than who the hell am I?”
At a senior writing class in Chatsworth, an 83-year-old man named William wrote a story about surviving a brain aneurysm. He had emergency surgery and woke in a hospital room confused and scared. He noticed a small bird on the ledge outside the window. This calmed him as if the bird was a visiting angel. William remained in the hospital for six weeks. The bird visited every morning and William named him Peter (after the actor Peter Finch). William read his story aloud in class. After he was finished, we heard tapping on the window. I opened the curtain and saw a small bird flying into the glass trying to enter the room. “There he is,” William said.
At a memory care facility in Torrance, I met a resident who’d recently been featured in a Los Angeles Times article. He was once a successful malpractice attorney who inspired a major studio movie. Then he was charged with wire fraud for allegedly swindling millions of dollars from clients who’d lost family members in a plane crash. According to the Times, the man might be faking an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to avoid prison time. I asked if he’d like to join my printmaking class. He said he couldn’t since he was preparing for a case. He showed me a yellow legal pad covered with notes. I asked what the case was about. He said it was about toxic well water in a small town (similar to the movie about him). I asked if he had a strong case. He smiled and said, “When I’m involved, it’s always a strong case.”
The man paced up and down the hallway talking to himself. His pants were soiled. A staff member took him to change his clothes. When the man returned, he apologized for not attending my class. “I’m preparing a case,” he said for the second time. “You think you’ll win,” I asked. “I always win,” he said. According to the Times article, a government expert testified the man was “exaggerating the extent of his cognitive problems and was competent enough to stand trial.” It didn’t appear that way to me. He seemed to have dementia like the other residents. The man’s family ultimately moved him to a new memory care facility in an unspecified location. The Times continues to cover the trial.
I met a 93-year-old woman named Doris at a senior home in La Mirada. She had echolalia, a condition where a person repeats meaningless words and phrases. I asked her if she’d like to join my printmaking class.
“Well, the lettuce is climbing the wall with the Birkenstock bush,” she said.
“Is that right,” I said.
“Yes and I eat frog belly every time the car takes a 16-indicator button.”
“I’ve never tasted frog belly. Is it good?”
“Oh yes,” Doris said. “Blue fried chicken on a Christmas tree.”
I had a rubber block with a chicken image. We carved the block together and then I showed Doris how to apply blue ink to make a “blue fried chicken on a Christmas tree.” Her smile lit up the room.
Sheila, an 83-year-old woman at a Santa Monica senior home, gave me a handwritten list of questions about her latest short story. I unfolded the paper and read the list:
—Where do I get cream for my buttocks?
—How do I stop toe fungus from spreading to my ankles?
—Dairy gives me diarrhea. Is it okay to drink soy milk?
I told Sheila she gave me the wrong note. She turned red and said she’d given me the note intended for her doctor while giving her doctor the note intended for the writing class. I asked what was written on the other note. She had two questions about her short story. “How do I make myself more likable” and “should I reveal that my father abused me early or later in the story?” We laughed wondering how her doctor would reply to these questions.
Marilyn’s an eccentric 87-year-old woman living in a senior home in Reseda. She was a well-known fashion designer in the 1960s with a boutique in Beverly Hills. When asked about her career she always says, “I was in the schmatta business.” These days, she offers a new spin on fashion. She sews original wardrobe for Barbie and Ken dolls. Residents bring their grandchildren’s dolls and Marilyn designs chic clothing in miniature. She confessed she goes one step further. Without telling the residents, she paints pubic hair on the dolls and nipples on the Barbies. When I asked why, she winked and said, “the kids have to learn somehow.”