Aug 25, 2011


Selfishly, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my friend and tears began rolling down my face. I closed my eyes and willed myself to stop crying for fear of upsetting Marie.

By Ellen Belk

Using a large blue erasable marker I wrote A-P-P-L-E on the giant white board. I smiled down at Marie.

“Marie, can you see that?” “Yea” she responded.

“Read it”

Marie looked at the board looked up at the ceiling lights then back at the board. “Apple” she chirped.

Subscribe to the Alzheimer's Reading Room

“Yes! That’s fantastic” I squealed. “You are amazing” I said while I wiped away the word and replaced it with; B-E-R-R-Y.

“Marie, can you see that.” “Yes”

“Read it”

“Berry” she said as she began nibbling on her left hand thumbnail.

I wrote C-A-B-I-N.

“Marie can you see that?”

“Yes” she said

“What does it say?” I asked. Marie hesitated and gave me a quizzical look. Our rhythm was disrupted. Our gazes locked ever so briefly until I realized my mistake. I began again.

I pointed at the word C-A-B-I-N on the white board.

“Marie can you see that?”


“Read it” I instructed.

“Cabin” she said. I smiled at her as we got back into our rhythm.

I conducted these mini verbal-boot camps with Marie two to three times per week.

I met Marie while working as a Life Enrichment Director in a secured memory care unit. She was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

During my first weeks of employment, I began learning about the 33 resident’s I’d be responsible for keeping ‘active’. Marie was one of those residents.

She was born and raised in the foothills of North Carolina. She later married and gave birth to two lovely daughters. Marie was the primary wage earner in an era when women were typically homemakers. At her professional peak she was a Vice President of a bank in that same Carolina region where she’d lived her entire life.

When I met Marie she was in her late 80’s with a fabulous head of white hair. Her blue eyes twinkled when she smiled. She didn’t weigh more than 90 pounds and sat in a wheelchair, unable to walk anymore. She had a curve in her spine thanks to years of osteoporosis.

As I learned more about Marie’s past, I found out that she had been an avid reader. One caregiver told me that when Marie had first moved in, she would sit in the nurses’ station and read aloud from magazines they provided.

Unfortunately for me, I never had the opportunity to see that side of Marie. However, armed with the knowledge of her love of reading, I immediately started strategizing about how I could tap into that part of Marie’s past. What could I do to nurture her love of reading, at this advanced stage of her disease journey? Standard magazines weren’t an option – too many words too much clutter, they didn’t keep her attention. Book, were no good either.

Frequently, while I did paperwork, Marie would sit in my office and keep me company. I would tell her stories about my new boyfriend (who would later become my husband). I chatted with her openly and although Marie couldn’t fully answer, her eyes, her expressions and her body language spoke to me in volumes. I cherished our time together.

One day, while in my office Marie blurted out a random word that caught me by surprise. I saw her glance at the white board in the corner that hadn’t been wiped clean from a word-game played earlier in the day and I quickly realized the word she uttered was on the board.

That was my ‘Ah-Ha’ moment. Our word-game routine began instantly.

Initially I tried full sentences. Then shorter, but that didn’t work with Marie. Through trial and error, I discovered that Marie was most successful when there was simply one word on the board written in large bold letters. I had to use simple prodding language to get her to look at the board and then more prodding to get her to read the word aloud. Which is how we finally landed on our reading-rhythm.

I wrote the word. I got her attention by calling her name and asking her if she could see the word. Then, gave the simple command of “Read it.” On the occasions I would accidently prompt her with, “what does it say?” she would stare at me in silence.

My suspicion was that Marie couldn’t respond because Alzheimer’s disease could affect one’s ability to understand language nuance. Folks with Alzheimer’s disease understand and process messages LITERALLY.

Therefore when I asked her “what does it say?” it was confusing because a word on a white board doesn’t ‘SAY’ anything. When I replaced that term by saying “Read it” instead, she responded every time.

Approximately 14 months after meeting Marie she began losing the battle with her unforgiving disease. Within a short time she was bed ridden and receiving comfort care measures only. The frontline staff and I were encouraged to say our ‘good byes’.

I sat at Marie’s bedside. Her room, filled with an abundance of pictures and precious mementos, was dimly lit. Gentle music played on a boom box in the corner. Our eyes locked, as they had so many times before. I began praying aloud while holding her gaze until a lump got stuck in my throat and I stopped speaking.

Selfishly, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my friend and tears began rolling down my face. I closed my eyes and willed myself to stop crying for fear of upsetting Marie. As I opened my eyes, Maries’ frail hand was reaching out until it touched my cheek. She extended a fragile index finger and brushed away one of my tears.

Again, our eyes locked and a warm feeling washed through my body. Here, in her waning moments Marie needed no white board, she could read my face without effort. In her time of need, she was comforting me.

Within 36 hours Marie was called to eternal life. My special friend was finally at P-E-A-C-E.

Ellen Belk is Divsional Director of Life Guidance (memory support) at Atria Senior Living Group. Ellen's career journey began as a broadcast journalist, prior to her entry into the Senior Living Industry. By 2005, Belk had emerged as a recognized program and business development professional, specializing in Alzheimer's and Dementia. Her talents for creating and coordinating unique programs combined with staff education and mentoring are her key contributions to the industry. Ellen also writes at They Don't Remember.

More Insight and Advice for Caregivers

Original content Ellen Belk, the Alzheimer's Reading Room