The Philadelphia area was walloped yesterday by a snowy nor’ easter that left us, from middish afternoon, without electricity. No ELECTRIC lights, but the radiant light from the snow fall made it possible to still read, just had to sit near the window.
Dipped back into Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older to refresh my memory of something in Chapter 6, Making Sense of Dementia’s Brokeness – – “We can emulate God by remembering for those who cannot remember for themselves. We can connect them to memory.”
On looking back, my reply – – “YES! This is what John & I do with older friends & clients. We help connect them to memories.” – – was correct, but a bit too… generic. My personal sense goes much deeper.
John & I never had to nudge our mothers’ memories – at 87 & 91, respectively, both Mom M. & my mother had only the minor memory problems of older age. Because of our core lack of experience, John & I were clear that working with dementia patients was way outside our areas of expertise. The Universe had other plans.
Turns out that our two dearest of the dear clients had dementia. In both cases, we made it clear to the families that we would do all we could -AND- once the dementia took serious root, we’d back away & let someone adept in that stage take the reins.
As it turned out, we were connected to both clients to their deaths because neither needed a higher level of care. Both remained aware of their surroundings, people & personalities to the end. While Anne often needed an assist in connecting to a memory or a moment, she never lost a sense of her own core self.
Knowing their backgrounds helped. Anne had been diagnosed with dementia before the unexpected passing of Kent, her adored husband & devoted partner, but she was pretty much fully connected to her past for several years. Building up our knowledge of her background was easy – I had long-ago stories from Mom, who knew both her family & Kent’s (I learned about his high school football exploits when Kent stopped by to pick up Mom for appointments – he was her favorite volunteer chauffeur), her son is a classmate & her daughter a BFF. It helped that Anne was naturally garrulous.
Richard was more of a challenge. We’d never met until the family asked us to accept him as a client. Although he was showing symptoms of dementia, he hadn’t been diagnosed. We pumped his children for background & were blessed that, like Anne, he was a great talker & happily filled us in on his Ohio boyhood, how he came to be an art professor at Lehigh University, his love of his university, his colleagues, communities, friends, family, neighbors. It helped immensely that before he moved in with his daughter, we made many visits to his treasured home on Stonesthrow Road, a connection that proved priceless in our two years with that gifted & gracious man.
We got to know Richard on our rambles around his Bethlehem, PA neck of the woods & especially heading down the beautiful River Road that always drew out a flow of wondrous memories of artists he knew & visitors from China he’d entertained with fabulous dinners put on by Bucks County friends. We listened & remembered, storing up the stories against the day that he would not so easily recall them on his own.
We’ve learned that there’s no such thing as too much background information in working with olders, whether a family member or a client. Thanks to her photos, I have an awareness of Mom from toddler to her final adieu. The 1914 photo of 3-year old “Cossie” sitting with her little sister Bets next to a lovely, early 20s Marjorie Wells – aka “Grandma” Rose to me! The picture with Betty, their older brother, Bob, and Bob’s dog, Buddy. Her 1928 graduation class picture. The photo as maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding, standing next to Christa’s brother, the man Mom believed she’d marry. Wonderful photos of a love-struck Kay. The pictures of her as nanny & confidante of Edwin & Lynne’s children, after her heart-breaking breakup. Her wedding photos with her actual Own True Love. Pictures of her from new mom all the way up to treasured snap shots with her adored grandchildren, here in the USA & down in Australia.
One of the most effective tools for a playfulness coach is a client’s family album. Through Mom’s photos, I grew up with a sense of the many personifications of Katharine Lockhart, nee Reynolds. They let me time jump throughout her life. Getting copies of pictures from across the spectrum of a person’s life helps us connect, especially if memory fades.
Most of what I know about using the sense of memory to build up & strengthen a failing memory was learned through Anne. Rabbi Friedman quotes Anne Basting’s observation that memory is “a relational process” – it’s collaborative. It certainly was with us.
In the early years of our connection, Anne regaled us with tales of JAM – Jane, Anne & Macy – her BFFs, from childhood to widowhood. As a girl, she’d walk up the hill to South Avenue where she’d meet up with her two besties & head to school or sports events or parties or whatever fun was on their agenda.
For years, every time we drove past what was had been the Carpenter place, Anne would get a BIG smile & sing out, “There’s Macy’s house!” The first time she didn’t say it was our earliest sign that my dear friend was in decline. I thought maybe she’d been preoccupied, but when we drove past later in the week & here was still no recognition, the truth hit home. From then on to our last jaunt, four days before Anne’s passing, whenever we were coming up to what is now Sarah & Jeff’s house, I’d get a BIG smile, touch Anne’s arm & sing out, “There’s Macy’s house!” If the day had ever come that Anne didn’t respond with a similar big smile & the comment, “Yes, it is. We were JAM – did you know that?”, I would have sailed past in silence.
Similarly with our much-missed Richard, who died this past November on the crest of the wave, on the last day of a retrospective of his life & art work – – if he’d ever gotten to the point that he didn’t remember savoring Anice Terhune’s Yorkshire pudding, the guests from China who’d warmly welcomed him to their country, his tales about serving on the Printmaking Council of New Jersey, we would have recalled them for him, opening a path to elusive lovely moments. And if the day came he couldn’t get there with even the most tender nudge, we would have kept quiet, letting him enjoy the drive for the itself.
In writing this, am reminded of an exercise that the awesome Anthony Hyatt led us through in a pre-conference workshop before the 2014 National Center for Creative Aging Conference. I’d never done call & response, but Anthony blew us all away as he showed how, using it, even people with serious memory challenges can be drawn into a greater whole, to be part of a singing group producing beautiful sounds.
It truly does feel like yesterday, looking around the circle, registering each person’s face as we all realized the power of something as simple as feeding a line & hearing it in reply.
Am going to have to change the title of this posting from “Remembering for Others,” because it turns out to be an homage to the call & response process, which – without our realizing it – infuses our playfulness coaching. We feed them the information they fed us & wait to see if there is an answering response.
That last part is essential – we wait for an answering response. With Richard, we always heard it – he left us before his memories slipped back to where even a prompt couldn’t draw them out. But with Anne… With Anne, we had to let go of trying to get her to connect with moments buried under layers of forgetfulness, to not try to spark her memory or even notice the church in which she was raised & married, the school she attended, the lanes she walked. It would have been a disservice.
But Anne didn’t forget everything. There was one place with which, to our final drive, Anne connected. There is a stretch of Terwood Road that comes up to Edge Hill from Willow Grove toward Huntingdon Vally & Bryn Athyn. Up until her last year, Anne would invariably say, as we drove toward the funky intersection, “I should know this area,” & we’d always smile as we assured her, “You’ll recognize it in a minute or so.” Sure enough, as we came up to the quirky intersection, she’d grin & say, “NOW I know where we are!” & the rest of the drive was spent in happy connection.
Sometime in her last year, the intersection stopped being a land mark in her failing memory. We’d slip through it with no recognition. We’d start our drive down Terwood’s roller coaster hills, past Lundy Lane on our left, the Papermill Road crossing. Just past where Washington Lane finally ends at Terwood, with the wide meadows of what were Raytharn Farm wheat fields when Anne was a youngster (now the Pennypack Trust), the road comes to a rise. To the left, fields stretch all the way to the horizon, with what looks like one unusually large, sprawling tree at the crest. Up to & including that last drive, when we took a special route designed to showcase that view in the winter dusk, Anne never failed to exclaim with joy at the sight of that tree (actually, 3 close together), outlined bold & strong against the fading light.
To this day, John & I would love to know the memory Anne connected to the sight, for we are both sure that only something special & strong would have always drawn out such a riveting reaction. What call drew out such a wondrous response?