Before I became a person who listens to herself talk to others about dementia care more than currently practicing it herself, I worked in an Assisted Living for almost 12 years. Most of my days were spent leading activities for people with dementia, befriending them and doing my best to figure out how to make their lives easier, more pleasant and more fun. I adored this work. The chance to do it again was a needed reboot for my system, especially given this time of the pandemic when screen time has become the common denominator of so much that I do.
My background was theater before health care. In those days gone by when I was all about activities, I eagerly brought in costumes, props, and whatever else I could think of to enhance activities. I led “The Price is Right” wearing a ridiculous beehive wig as “Barb Barker”. I donned a Judge’s robe and brought in a gavel for “You be the Judge.” I schlepped in a trunk on wheels full of things to feel, smell and hear for interactive storytelling. I used an enormous white board for my favorite activity: “Learn a Little Shakespeare”…which they did! Sure, many folks with memory loss forgot it by the next morning, but some managed to hang on to a few lines or a word until the next time we did the activity a few weeks later.
For my recent sessions, I didn’t feel the need to come armed with as much stuff as before. I was honored that at both sites, these folks seemed immediately willing to hang out with me. They reminded me that people with dementia are as hungry for human contact, a genuine smile (even one under a mask), a laugh, a friend, as any of the rest of us are. They are good detectors of who is genuinely happy to be around them. They are super sensitive, becoming emotional quickly when something stirs them, and they long, oh how they long, for reminders of things that touch their hearts or their funny bones.
At one site, I started a trivia session casually talking about “luck.” This involved listing sayings about luck and mentioning things we associate with good luck (four-leaf clover, rabbit’s foot…) Yawn! I wasn’t getting a whole lot of response. Then I asked, “When do YOU feel lucky?” They perked up.
- “I felt lucky when you came over and put your hand on my shoulder, or even a finger.”
- “I feel lucky just to be alive today, right now.”
- “I’m lucky to have two sons.”
- “It comes in different ways”. (from someone whose words often are jumbled)
- “MY WIFE!” (said loudly, with heartbreaking passion, making it abundantly clear that his wife was no longer living)
- “To be in this group! This helps us be positive! So much of our consideration is negative!”
There are many ways meaning shows up. Hearty laughter. Tears coming to a man’s eyes when I put on a CD of his favorite music (Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor). Simple things can be hugely engrossing. For one woman, it was savoring a big dish of ice cream. For another, it was enthusiastically and quickly coloring in the outline of a butterfly, using only yellow and black, just so, because (as she said) she KNEW butterflies. For one gentleman, it was reminiscing about the farm. I visited with him in his apartment for a good 40 minutes. He was new to the community, shy, and a real slow talker, but we got going. He got into the details of milking cows and before long was even imitating (exceedingly well, well, I’d say) the different and nuanced moos of his cows! I learned a lot!
At the other site, on my last day, after thanking the group of ladies (it was always ladies who joined me there for chair movement and making up stories from pictures) for the time we’d spent together, one of them suddenly hugged me. This was the first hug anyone had given me since last March, not counting pandemic “air hugs.” Then, she proceeded to make a little speech. While her words did not make logical sense, it was lovely, and everyone in the group respectfully listened to her, as they always do. The gist was clear – that the kinds of things I had been doing with them were worth doing, and important.
To their credit, both communities where I helped have very calm environments. This made my job easy. It is vitally important to maintain an atmosphere where people with dementia can be comfortable, where they feel safe to express themselves, their thoughts and their feelings. I came away from these experiences proud of the work that our Dimensions Managers, Activities professionals and others are doing to create such environments.
I came away thinking that people with dementia are perhaps more open than the rest of us. They are grateful, effusively so, when they feel seen, heard, listened to, validated, enjoyed and appreciated. I came away remembering that this is what dementia care is all about.
Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dimensions® Program Coordinator