By Rick Phelps
Leeanne Chames and I Skyped yesterday like we do about three times a week. I went back and watched it, and I saw something. I saw a man I hadn't seen for some time. I saw a man talking about who he was, what he had done in his life before this disease took everything from him.
I watched as he talked about working in law enforcement. I could see a spark in his eye that I hadn't seen in a long time. He was reliving what he was, what he had done, what he loved to do.
I often wonder, as I spend time in nursing facilities or dementia units, does the staff who interact with the patients actually know who each person is?
Every dementia patient has a past just like every other person does. But how many times does the facility, or anyone for that matter, know who this person was before their diagnosis?
I can imagine a facility where there are patients who were avid golfers once upon a time, where they have past school teachers, and where more than one patient played some sort of musical instrument in their day.
The thing is, every one of these people had a life before this horrid disease started ravishing their mind and body.
I am not living in the Land of Oz here. I realize that there is only so much time in a shift, and only so many staff members helping these people. No one has the time to sit down and talk about old times for a half hour or so.
But what would it hurt if the staff or anyone who comes into contact with the patient just mentions something to them about what they did and how proud their family must be of them.
Will they hear it? Will they understand? Some perhaps. For most, it is not likely. But it takes nothing but a little bit of time. Just that extra little effort to say, "Good morning Miss Janice, one of the best school teachers to come out of the Hillstreet School system!"
Let them know that you know they were somebody, that they are somebody, and you know about their past.
When staff ask me what can be done to help make the patients’ lives more tolerable, I ask them, "What does your staff know about each patient?"
Do they know their first names, or what they like to called? When their birthday is? Maybe what town they grew up in?
All of these are just little tidbits you can use when interacting with these folks. And the thing is, you can do this every day. Because of their memory loss, they will never realize you asked them the same question yesterday or even just minutes ago.
It may just raise a sparkle in their eye for just a tiny second. It may make just the smallest of grins come across an old tired face. They may just sit there and stare blankly into the wall.
But the thing is, it doesn't cost a dime. It doesn't take but a minute, and perhaps, just maybe it will reach them.
Staff members need to do this. Family members need to do this. We all need to do this.
It was only a few minutes that I saw the man I once was in that video, but he was there. The man I knew. The man who told everyone he would get through this. I saw no darkness in his eyes; I saw him talking and sharing stories. He was so proud.
I hadn't seen this man in a long time. Even the man in the mirror looks strange to him now. But there he was yesterday, in all his glory, talking to another wonderful friend about who he used to be...