Forgotten Rooms

A father’s move to memory care makes his daughter consider the forgotten spaces of self
Words By Kathryn Williams

My 80-year-old father tears up at the printed nameplate beside the room at the memory care facility into which we are moving him today. We are calling the room an “apartment,” as if it is a studio in Manhattan. Although we have talked with him about this move for weeks—and, before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, for years, as the continuing care community he wished to retire to—it is fresh information to him because everything is fresh information to his plaque-strangled brain.  

Dewy-eyed, my father examines the small, glass-doored alcove beside his new door, where residents, or their families, are encouraged to share photographs and objects that help staff know something about who they were before dementia hollowed them out, and to help occupants identify their room. (Wandering, we are told, into other residents’ rooms is common.) In the alcove, my brother has lovingly arranged this shorthand for my father’s eight decades of life: a picture of him as an adolescent in a Soap Box Derby racer alongside a more recent photo of him driving an IndyCar at the Skip Barber Racing School; the license plate from the beloved Ford Ranger he was forced to stop driving a year ago (its inscription, “MT MINK,” a nod to his West Virginia roots); a photo of our family visiting me in Maine several years before, when the sticky protein fragments had just started to accumulate in his cortex; and some golf balls we found in the top drawer of his dresser when emptying it for the move. 

This still life brings tears to my father’s eyes, and at first, my stepmother and I, whose job it has been to bring him here, are not sure if they are tears of happiness, anger, betrayal, or confusion. “Thank you,” he says, and my heart is crumpled, as if by an invisible fist, because I realize they are tears of gratitude. In this moment, my father feels recognized, and that feeling is hard to come by these days. 

As we introduce him to the locked ward that has, very suddenly, become his home, the gratitude will swing to deep and understandable confusion, disbelief, panic, resignation, and finally the glass-half-full bravery I have always known him to possess. “It’s going to be OK,” he informs a nurse the first night before bed. Later, the nurse will relay this to my brother over the phone, and my brother will lose it. He will cry for the current situation and for the childhood trauma that necessitated the development of such coping mechanisms in our father.    

His room, we hope, might feel like a sanctuary in the midst of upheaval. We have filled it with belongings from the home he has shared with my stepmother for the past 18 years, and this is partly what inspires his gratitude that first afternoon—he cannot understand how we have, in just hours, whisked his dresser, his favorite chair, the bed on which he naps with his beloved cat, Claire, to this foreign space. The answer is careful orchestration. The mere presence of these items seems to be enough to make my father’s introduction to this new space a positive rather than devastating experience—until he realizes that he, like his things, will be staying.  

In the days to come, we will realize that unless we want to get mired in a punishing and endless loop of questions about when he can go home (“we’re going to try this for a while”), who is paying for this (“it’s included in the deposit you put down”), and where we are (“still in Richmond, Dad”), we need to get him out of the room, out of the memory care unit. We take excursions that give him a sense of freedom and normalcy—to the cafeteria for ice cream, to the coffee shop, to the community’s putting green. The desperation, his and ours, is too much to bear. It leaves us feeling wrung out and guilty, and yet assured that the sundowning and late-night wandering and isolation will only get worse and that, as we’ve been told, it’s better to make this transition before we are forced to by injury or tragedy. 

The layout of his new home must mirror what my father is experiencing in his mind. Three identical pods of twelve rooms are arranged in a ring that makes walking through them feel like déjà vu, familiar but unfamiliar. Every time we arrive at the facility, patient nurses must direct us to his room. There is no voluntary exit. Each time we come and go, we must be buzzed in by a staff member with access. These locked doors must feel like the maddening blockages my father meets every day—to memories, to names, and increasingly, to language. 

We have been given no map to the grounds and buildings, though when we venture outside of the locked doors to the larger campus—extraordinarily impressive and sprawling—it’s clear we need one. I begin to wonder if the mazelike layout of the community is by design, to keep residents in, to keep them safe. But we also have been given no map to this transition, no guidance on how to prepare our father for this move, how to ease his anxiety when his wife tells him she can’t sleep there tonight, how to explain that we are not supposed to stay for meals until he has acclimated. We have been given nothing but this safe space to land, just as he has. 

At the center of each pod is a nurses’ station disguised as a home kitchen: white cabinets, quartz countertops, sugar jars, a stove. These kitchens are highly intentional, meant to evoke warmth, familiarity, continuity, care. And at the center of the building is a beautifully planted garden with a burbling stream, a white gazebo where I imagine we might someday bring him for lunch. I hope these spaces will become ones of comfort for my father. 

I often have dreams where I find myself in the houses and apartments of my past, wandering familiar rooms and hallways only to discover some dark and dusty unused wing. I enter these hidden floors and forgotten attics with fearfulness, but once I’m in them, a sense of possibility opens up. I never knew there was so much space here! I’ve come to see these dreams as tentative acknowledgment of ignored or unknown parts of my psyche, mental and emotional spaces I’ve closed off from my consciousness.  

I would not say that I have inherited my father’s optimism, but I have chosen to see his illness as a falling away of mind and ego, a return, painful as it is, to the true essence of himself. As he dreamwalks through the new and disorienting homescape of his mind, all familiarity stripped away, I wonder what dimly lit but spacious places he might find within himself, what unused or forgotten rooms he might discover. I am not generally an optimist, but after all, I am his daughter. 

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