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My Mother's Creatures - Great and Small
By Felicia Mitchell
(Page 1 of 2)

I love the story of Noah and his ark. I donít care if the story is factual or not. What appeals to me is an ark full of animals under the care of loving humans, awash in waters blanketing an earth that needed a good cleaning. I like the happy ending when the dove returns.

My mother Audrey has always loved animals. After her children grew up and left home, she began to show loving concern for the animals around her, from adopted cats to mourning doves that perched on wires outside her house to a lizard she fed lettuce to in a jar top on her sun porch. When my motherís capacities began to shift with the evolution of her dementia of the Alzheimerís type, her love for animals, including imaginary animals, grew stronger.

I definitely knew something was shifting in her consciousness when we walked into a Barnes and Noble Bookstore one evening and the only thing that she wanted was that stuffed rat of Harry Potter fame. One nice thing about toy animals like this rat is that you can love them and care for them, and you donít have to worry about forgetting to feed them. They donít die.

Most importantly, you can take toy animals into a nursing home when you have to give up your home. Unlike books with words that confuse, or people who may not do what you expect, they sit there ready to be cared for. They are always warm and fuzzy.

Sure, real animals are great. Before she moved into her nursing home, I worried about removing Audrey from her real cat. Fortunately, she also gets to interact with live animals. The therapy dogs that visit the nursing home, including my own small dog Spot, whom she calls a kitty, keep her smiling and patting. One week last fall, a stray cat found her for a few days on the porch where she goes to watch the horses across the street. She fed it her milky coffee and talked to it until a visitor adopted it and gave it a home. As great as they are, these real animals come and go. The toy ones are always there, adding a layer of stability that Audrey needs.

Just as a child will play and imagine, Audrey continues to do so. From visit to visit, I watch the creative arrangements of stuffed animals shifting. Whatever else she does with her time, the animals seem to offer Audrey some focus for her attention. These animals reinforce not only to her need to show, affection but also her inclination to order things. For example, she likes to handle and study and arrange them. Sometimes I will visit and find that the tiny kitten made in Austria is reclining in a plastic container that she used to soak her false teeth in. A larger bear may hold a smaller bear. The fox with the red scarf we found on one of our Saturday outings is often reclining in the arms of a rabbit.

Because she likes to play with them and make them interact, one day I got the idea of adding to her growing menagerie with a dollhouse of some kind, preferably one that had animals instead of people, in order to add a layer of play. While one might worry about spoiling a child, I donít worry that we are spoiling Audrey. I know that one day she may not recognize her toys. So off I went to Wal-Mart, where I walked up and down the aisles, looking for another special something. Thatís where I spotted Noahís Ark. We set it up on a Saturday afternoon and she praised it, but then asked if we were going out. After all, it was Saturday, and it wasnít too cold for an excursion to our favorite coffee shop.

When we returned, she did pick up the zebras and monkeys to get acquainted with them. She liked the toy, I could tell, but wondered who Noah was. I told her about Noah and his wife and left her under their care and crossed my fingers. So far so good.

On one level, Noahís Ark is cute. On another, Noahís Ark gives an Alzheimerís patient like my mother something that allows her the opportunity to make more connections. She can count, and she loves to count, so something with two of everything (except for the plastic straw and peas) invites pairing and counting. Seeing two of each, she has to think about matching. Donít get me wrong. The idea isnít to create a baby Einstein in reverse. The idea is to give her something stimulating to do that involves arranging little plastic pieces in novel ways. We all know that Alzheimerís patients who are stimulated fare better than those who are left alone.

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