HILTON HEAD ISLAND – Lois Hoffman sat on a recent Tuesday with her back to the rest of the room.
From her wheelchair and with her left arm in a sling, she quietly pedaled a therapy bike and stared out the window.
Others at Life Care Center of Hilton Head stretched their limbs and practiced walking over a small staircase.
Hoffman, 88, had been at the skilled nursing facility on Hilton Head Island for a few weeks now, but she had not yet met someone she considered a friend.
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Not a friend like Kathleen Bell, anyway.
Not a person with whom she could laugh and gossip. Someone who would push her wheelchair and slowly and endlessly walk the halls with her while they talked about whatever snippets of their pasts suddenly came to mind.
That friend, her best friend, was at Brookdale Hilton Head Court, the memory care center where the two live.
That friend missed her.
And, unbeknownst to Hoffman, that friend was standing behind her as she pedaled by herself.
“You look good,” Bell told Hoffman after they hugged.
“I just got my hair done,” Hoffman said. “That’s why I look good. How are you? You look thin.”
“Me?” Bell said. “I don’t think.”
An aide came to Hoffman’s side and flipped down the footrests on her wheelchair so that she could stop pedaling.
“We can finish later,” he said and then began to move her.
“Later, later, later,” Hoffman said. “Much later. Where am I going?”
“I want to bring my friend with me,” she told him.
Hoffman and Bell, who both have dementia, came to Brookdale in the fall of last year and met soon after. They clicked immediately and have been inseparable since.
Their families had worried that they would be lonely and that they wouldn’t connect with anyone there. Hoffman’s son told the Brookdale staff that his mom is an introvert and not someone who goes out of her way to seek companionship.
It’s a common fear, Edwina Hoyle, executive director of Memory Matters, told me last month.
“Dementia strips you of your memory,” she said. “It does not strip you of your humanity. . That connection with another human being who looks you in the eye with genuine compassion is what all of us need.”
Hoyle told me about three women at the Memory Matters day program who became great friends. They chatted and laughed and then, when words were no longer available to them, when their brains had robbed them of language, they simply held hands.
“(Friends with dementia) may not remember each other’s names or know how they know someone,” Hoyle said, “but, boy, their eyes light up when they see that person who was kind to them.”
When Hoffman was moved to the rehabilitation center, Debbie Anderson, sales manager at Brookdale Hilton Head Court, said staff noticed a very clear change in Bell, who is 90.
“Miss Kathleen was asking about (Hoffman),” Anderson said. “She just wasn’t herself. She wasn’t as engaged as she usually is. She just sat with her arms folded.”
The team at Brookdale worked with Life Care, and when both women were having a good day, Anderson, Bell and Tamika Singletary, a coordinator at Brookdale, drove the eight-tenths of a mile that separated the women so that Bell and Hoffman could be reunited.
“This is my room,” Hoffman told Bell, who perched on Hoffman’s low bed.
The room was sparse. The TV was on mute.
The two looked at each other.
“She’s been sad. She misses you,” Anderson told Hoffman.
Hoffman put her hand on Bell’s, “We’re going to get happy again, aren’t we? You’ve lost weight.”
“Me?” Bell said. “I don’t think I have. I’ve been eating the same.”
“Maybe it’s your face,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman told her that she was leaving Life Care in a few days.
“I'll be out by you,” Hoffman said to Bell. “Have you made any friends?”
“Not really,” Bell said.
“It’s hard to make friends when you get old,” Hoffman told her. Then she pointed to the other bed in the room. “You could come over and sleep in that bed.”
“I snore,” Bell said.
The two laughed.
“I’m so glad to see her,” Hoffman told me. “I really am. This is my buddy here. We’ve had lots of good times together.”
Hoffman looked at Anderson, “Is this your granddaughter?”
“I’m just a friend,” Anderson said.
“Not ‘just' a friend,” Hoffman scolded her. “A ‘friend.’ It’s good to have a friend. Someone to talk to.”
Hoffman asked Bell if she liked living at Brookdale.
“You live at Brookdale, too,” Anderson told Hoffman.
“I'll be darned,” she said quietly. “I'll know it when I see it.”
Hoffman and Bell talked for a while about Hoffman’s granddaughter, her old Ford Taurus and the house she had loved but is determined to stop missing.
“I want someone to be as happy as I was in it,” she said.
“That’s nice,” Bell said.
“And you like it where you are?” Hoffman asked Bell.
Anderson told Hoffman that they’d celebrate her return to Brookdale with dessert.
“What’s your favorite?” she asked her.
“I have a poor memory,” Hoffman said. “I like all desserts. In the summertime we had strawberries. Strawberry shortcake. Mom used to make that biscuit dough.”
When it was time to go, Hoffman turned to Bell. “We didn’t get in any trouble. We'll get into trouble together soon.”
“You better lie here and think of things for us,” Bell said.
Bell helped Hoffman unlock her wheelchair and lightly placed her hand on it. She walked beside the wheelchair as Hoffman propelled it forward with her feet.
“I wish I could have entertained you,” Hoffman said.
A staff member at Life Care asked them how long they had been friends.
“Twenty years,” Hoffman said.
“Not that long,” Bell said at the same time.
“It seems that long,” Hoffman joked.
They hugged goodbye again.
“Thank you for bringing my friend,” Hoffman said to Singletary and Anderson.
“Don’t lose any more weight,” she called out to Bell.