Alzheimers, Memory and Engagement: Finding a connection.

Memories are lodged in us. They are stored in our body, in our tissues in our muscle memory, in the subtleties of our senses. Doing the work that I do, I am always thinking about memory,how we create our stories, and how we use our stories to create narratives that give meaning to our lives, I think about my clients with dementia whose memories are hidden, stored somewhere far from reach, perhaps erased. I think about the unknown triggers — those smells,sights, words that create a cascade of experiences that can’t be shared. Regardless of what a brain scan might reveal, anyone who spends extended time with someone with dementia will tell you how a for fleeting moment, whether through touch, or sound, or the sight of a cardinal at the birder feed, a moment of connection to this world can happen. Something unseen surfaces and a magical moment appears that exists beyond words, beyond logic. It is what we work for — that sense of connection, that sense of contact that brings both of us into contact with each other and with this world. Then the lesson is to let go, to accept that the moment has passed, but to honor and celebrate what just happened. It was real.

A client of mine died today. She was at Thetford for only a few months. Before that she was in another facility but life was lonely and she was in decline. When she came to Thetford our job was to be stand beside her and love her during this final transition. She was not a happy woman. A stroke had taken away her independence, it had taken away her role in the community as an elder in her church, a role that gave her an identity as a guide and a healer. Time and dementia was robbing her of engagement and interaction. A part of her was just ready to let go. I can honor that. Yet, even in in the letting go, human connection is as essential to life as breathing. We all need to know that our lives matter. Much of the time my resident wanted to be alone. She did not interact much. She was confused and thought her granddaughter was the daughter who had died long ago. We surrounded her with warm colored painted walls, soft fabrics, flowers, a view out the window where she could watch the birds and the movement of the leaves on the oak tree, simple things to remind her of the beauty in the world.

But was there a way to make the bridge from her world to mine? Was there a place where could meet that could create a meaningful exchange. Stored within her was a deep connection to the part of her that had been a healer, an important member of her church. So I went to her to ask her for support. I came as a person in need. Maybe I was not feeling badly that day, but like everyone, I have those days when I wonder how to get through the difficult times. I told her I was struggling and needed guidance. She did not know who I was. She was in her chair, looking far away.

“I could use some advice,” I said.

She looked up.

“I know you help people,” I said. “Sometimes I feel so lost and sad.”

She looked at me. Her face momentarily came alive.

“Faith”, she said.

Our engagement lasted a moment. It spanned a lifetime.

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