Aunt Helen Sees a Ghost

Laurie Douglas

Five months ago my husband and I moved from Manhattan to Queens to take care of his 84-year-old aunt, who has Alzheimer’s. Although she can’t cook, shop, or manage her money anymore, Helen is remarkably functional in her own home. She’s lived here almost forty years, more than half of them alone, as a widow.

Nothing has changed–the furniture, the bric-a-brac, even the refrigerator magnets–since my husband was a child. Neither has Helen’s daily routine. She spends the day on autopilot, brewing cups of weak Lipton tea loaded with half-and-half, washing tiny machine-loads of hankies and hand towels, and making her way through the house at dusk, flicking on plug-in nightlights along the way. It’s the perfect setup for someone with dementia; she can do a lot without having to think.

Ironically, Helen hates this house, curses it daily. It’s a constant reminder of what she can no longer do, and she still feels responsible for maintaining it, even though we reassure her that we take care of it now.

A few days ago, she and I watched That’s Entertainment (perfect, no plot). It was odd; every time a different movie star came on screen, she asked if the person …

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