Gerry Ingham is in the bathroom, where she has just struck up a conversation with the pleasant, gray-haired woman in the mirror.
Gerry Ingham's daughter, Shelley Allen, is in the basement, quickly stuffing a load of clothes into the washing machine. If she's lucky, the conversation upstairs will last long enough for her to get the wash started and maybe fold a few clothes from the dryer.Like most caregivers for patients with Alzheimer's disease, Allen struggles to fit her own life into her mother's need for full-time supervision. She is grateful for any few minutes when her mother is occupied, although these instances get rarer and rarer. And conversations between mother and daughter are increasingly one-sided, as Ingham tries to figure out who Allen is.
So several times a day, Allen slips a video into the VCR and wheels her mother into the living room.
"Hello," a friendly woman says. Her face fills the screen and she looks directly at Gerry Ingham. "Can you see me?" "I can see you," says Ingham.
The woman says that her name is Joyce. "Can you tell me what your name is?" Ingham is smiling, delighted to have such an attentive visitor. It doesn't matter that Ingham's name is nowhere near the tip of her tongue.
"Today I have a surprise for you," the woman on the tape is saying. "His name is Sam." "Oh my," says Ingham as a dog walks in front of the camera.
A tape like this can enthrall Ingham for 30 minutes at a stretch, even if she just saw it a few hours before.
Based on research conducted at the University of Utah during the early 1990s, the Video Respite tapes are available through a Salt Lake company called Innovative Caregiving Resources.
"The original thought was that Alzheimer patients wouldn't have an attention span more than about 10 minutes," says ICR program director Julie Blanton. But the tapes - some as long as 55 minutes - "really captivate them," she says.
The original research was done on custom-made tapes featuring the caregivers themselves talking to their parents about favorite foods, vacations, pets. When the custom-made tapes proved too costly and too difficult to prepare, ICR turned to generic tapes.
Either way, the tapes take advantage of an Alzheimer patient's ability to remember long-ago events and, especially, songs - even when they can't remember where their bedroom is. And the tapes, featuring actors and musicians who speak slowly and soothingly directly into the camera, often engage the patients in a way that even live musicians can't, says Sharon Syme, director of recreation at Highland Cove Health Center.
ICR now offers 12 tapes, including one geared to men, a Jewish tape ("A Kibitz With David"), ones for African-Americans, Canadians, Christmas. A new tape, "Those Good Ol' School Days" will be available in the fall.
Shelley Allen takes out the "Sharing Favorite Things" tape and puts in "Sharing Christmas Cheer." Never mind that it's a muggy June day outside. Allen's mother smiles as the man on the tape points to the decorations on a Christmas tree.
Regular TV shows don't interest her mother, says Allen. "Barney" doesn't engage her. "Sesame Street" is too fast-paced. Most people on TV talk too fast, a lot of them look mean, and the situations often seem to have nothing to do with a stooped lady who raised her children in the 1940s and '50s.
"I'm dropping the assault charges against you," a woman on TV is saying as Allen changes tapes on this June morning.
Keeping Ingham entertained is crucial, says Allen. Left to herself, Ingham will often either start taking off her clothes or will become agitated, asking to go home.
Ingham isn't always willing to sit and watch the tapes, says Allen. But most of the time she seems pleasantly surprised that the people on the tapes have dropped by for a visit. She tries to answer their questions.
"Silent Night," the man on the tape is singing. Ingham closes her eyes and smiles.