The woman is my mother, who is 81 and losing her memory, the past dissolving each day like so many tablets dropped into water and turning to fizz.
Do you know who they are? she says, speaking to me, because she realizes I’m there in the doorway. I’m visiting for a week from out of town. She knows me, though often now she forgets my name or the terms that define our bond: mother and daughter.
Back home I phone her every other day. Sometimes I have to wait for several minutes while she figures out which end of the receiver is the mouthpiece, which end belongs against her ear. Are you there? she yells. Hello? I try to coach her, projecting my voice across the miles that divide us, across the neurological terrain that’s more and more a desert for her, a harsh and difficult landscape. Finally there’s connection: Mom, can you hear me now? I repeat, and suddenly she says, Sure I can, as if there had never been a problem at all.
Though surveys repeatedly show that most older people prefer to remain in their own homes as they age, about 800,000 were in assisted living last...