09/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Visit

I'm going to let you in on one of life's big secrets. Your parents or someone you love is going to get old, very old. Most likely they will become arthritic and develop high blood pressure; no big deal. But perhaps, like my mother-in-law, they will suffer dementia. Because you are a basically decent person, you will try to help your loved one as they slip away, into a netherworld of permanent forgetfulness. And, like becoming a parent or being hit by a train, the experience will change you.

Back East, Yia Yia, as she is affectionately known, has been managing in her own apartment with the help of what in Senior World parlance is called a caregiver. But a caregiver isn't enough, and after a few random household accidents, Yia Yia moves in with my brother-in-law and his young family. We always knew she was forgetful - but in his home it becomes clear that she is forgetting important things, like where she is and if she's taken her medicine.

After six weeks of acute stress, my brother-in-law calls us. "I'm putting her on a plane" he says. There is no negotiating. He's done his bit and it's time for my husband and me to step up and take her for a while. My husband, though dutiful, is on deadline. I am on my own with only days to prepare for a period in our lives which we now refer to simply as "The Visit."

Thanks to the advice of some savvy friends, I quickly realize that Yia Yia cannot possibly stay at our house, which also shelters two school aged children and is undergoing major renovations. Where can we put her? Horror stories abound about slummy nursing homes. And like top-notch preschools, I find, the best Assisted Living facilities have five to ten year waiting lists. But by the grace of God, I zero in on a brand new Assisted Living facility in an off-beat neighborhood that offers short term stays. I mapquest the Home and hop in my green Volvo station wagon. And like that first trip to the Baby Gap, my first foray into Senior World is mystical, even exhilarating.

Upon entering the Home, I am bombarded by the smell of cookies baking. It is like a bright, sunny, happy extended stay hotel. There are flowers, newspapers, a sumptuous television viewing area. Beyond the "concierge" lies a snack bar with popcorn, coffee, those yummy just-out-of-the-oven cookies, and sickeningly sweet juices. Sweet enough to penetrate the senior palate, I later deduce. A resident, cane in hand, bellies up to the snack bar and actually gets a vodka on the rocks. On subsequent visits to complete 420 pages of paperwork, I partake freely of the snacks, though no vodka, and my children discover the bottomless candy dish and pet Chihuahua. Like the best casinos, this business has tweaked the environment to entice - and retain - its customers. And I love it!

I meet Compassionate Heidi, who explains the Home's philosophy, describes the many activities Yia Yia might enjoy there, reviews the daily menu. She tells me about her own Nana, who also suffered dementia. If only there had been such a place back then! She laments.

Then she listens. She listens as I pour out all my anxieties about Yia Yia's visit and she understands. I am then lead up to the dementia unit, kindly known as the Harmony floor.

And this is bright and cozy too. Big band music plays in the dining room, where a cluster of residents do arts and crafts. Others sit in the lounge watching "The Sound of Music." And here and there I discover little displays reminiscent of the good ol' days. I spy a hutch next to the piano with canisters of Ovaltine, and what is that box? Little Debbies? Mmmmm, my favorite. I instinctively reach. But Heidi, ever so patiently, informs me that these are only props. Familiar objects from what is assumed to be a common past, they help provide residents a sense of security. I shrink in embarrassment for only a moment, because in my mind, Heidi is my new best friend. We've just had a no-holds-barred conversation about incontinence; surely she'll forgive my innocent Little Debbie fixation.

After seeing the nicely appointed semi-private rooms and the handicapped-accessible bathtub, we stop at the Snoezeling room, a special womb-of-a-room where residents can go, or be taken, when they are feeling anxious. It turns out that, just as most infants have a crying jag every afternoon before dinner, parents with dementia experience "sundowning," a late afternoon agitation that can get ugly. The antidote? A stay in the Snoezeling room, where dim lighting, a fuzzy blanket, and aromatherapy take them to a happier place. A slideshow of clouds, meadows, or the seashore projects on the wall. A lava lamp bubbles gently next to the soft rocking chair. I suspect the room is also soundproof. If only I'd known about Snoezeling before we started our renovations!

Seven days after the fateful phonecall, Yia Yia arrives in good spirits. My husband, deadline met, picks her up from the airport and meets me at the Home. He has cleverly told Yia Yia that this is the hotel she will be staying in, on account of our construction project. She buys it. But what is going on here? This is not the welcoming place I just visited. My new friend Heidi is in an all-day training session. The concierge casts scornful looks at me when I make my customary beeline for the snackbar. The nurse's assessment of Yia Yia, scheduled upon arrival, has been delayed.

So, we are escorted by an unfamiliar face to the Harmony floor. This floor, too, has been oddly transformed. A handful of residents are relaxing in the lounge, but they are still watching "The Sound of Music." Only this time the DVD is skipping, and the Baroness keeps bouncing that ball with those miserable von Trapp children, over and over again. Yet no one notices because, if they are not staring, slackjawed and drooling, they are sound asleep. Were they all in wheelchairs last time? I steer my charges to the dining area. But alas, preparations are underway for a memorial service. Ed, apparently, has died. What the hell kind of hotel is this? There is only one place left go. The Snoezeling room.

So there we hide. Yia-Yia, non-plussed, stares blankly as my husband contemplates the loss of the mother he has known. I silently vow to drink green tea and play Sudoku daily. It's an inauspicious crossing into Senior World. No surprise "Caregiver Shower,' with tea sandwiches and gifts wrapped in pastel paper. No female bonding over silly party games. No giant cake fashioned from a stack of Depends.

But this: a new reality in which the person you once knew fades away and a new person emerges. If you are very brave, you will stick around to meet that new person, and you will find yourself communicating less with words and more with hand holding and shared quiet. You will learn how to move slowly. And, like me, you may develop an addiction to green tea and Sudoku.