Food Strike: A Fork in Dementia’s Winding Road

My cell phone rang. I was on a trip with friends in Arkansas not far from my home in St. Louis. It was the charge nurse at the nursing home where my mother, Dorothy, lived with her Siamese cat YumYum.

When the nurse said, “It’s about your mother,” I sighed, shrugged, and waited.

“We’re going to have to do an intervention,” the nurse said in a stern tone. “Or at least use far stronger medications to calm your mother down.”

My mother had Alzheimer’s disease, and I knew from my psychotherapist friends that an intervention was drastic.

“I’d like to send her to the psychiatric section at the hospital this afternoon,” the nurse added.

“Hold on,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“Your mother’s stirring up the other residents.”

I squeezed the phone tight and bit my bottom lip. I tried to picture this: My mother was wheelchair-bound and rarely spoke, usually in a sort of pig Latin dialect. Yet she still held her head of lustrous white hair like a woman in charge. Over the decades she’d been in charge a lot. A fund drive, a United States Senate campaign, a dinner party, a legislative initiative—she could organize and lead any of the above. By now, Alzheimer’s dementia was taking its toll, but what was I hearing from the charge nurse?

“How so, stirring up the residents?” I tried to picture my mom’s cadre of immobile, mostly non-verbal companions.

“Well, she’s telling them not to eat. They’re pushing their food away. She says she’s organizing a food strike.”

I swallowed a chuckle. In my mind’s eye, I conjured up gray, gravy-soaked meat; hard, pale green melon chunks; cottage cheese measured with an ice cream scoop. And paper napkins and slap-dash service, without a touch of the gracious living my mother cherished.

“How about if you do nothing for 24 hours?” I said. “Just let me think about it until I get back to St. Louis tomorrow afternoon. Please don’t do anything.”

I caught up to my travel friends, savored lunch, but then my phone rang again. This time it was my mother. An aide must have dialed for her.

“What’s going on, Mom?”

“I need money.” Her voice was as strong and clear as I’d heard it in a while.

“Money, Mom?” She hadn’t mentioned money or used money for months. “What for?”

“Food. I’ve got to buy some food.”

“Food, how come?”

“Well, if we’re having a food strike, I have to provide something to eat.”

“Aha,” I said, stifling a laugh. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow when I get home.”

And so it is: Alzheimer’s disease bears away all remnants and scraps of personality, character, will, and individual dynamism—until it does not. To my joy and amazement for one shining February afternoon, the Alzheimer’s disease stepped aside. My real and beloved mother stood up ready once again to change the world around her for the better.

Courageous, she could still defy the status quo in the small orbit of her 94-year old life. She needed no intervention and no drugs, just a cheering squad for the glimmer of the self she’d been for most of her long years.

By the time I arrived at my mother’s nursing home the next day, she had—to my dismay—forgotten the food strike.

Susan Rava, a former French teacher, lives and writes in St. Louis. She is the author of Swimming Solo: A Daughter’s Memoir of Her Parents, His Parents, and Alzheimer’s Disease (Plateau Books), where a shorter version of “Food Strike” first appeared.

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