When I learned Kashara and I would be visiting the Autumn Leaves Nursing Home to meet residents dealing with various memory loss problems, I'll admit I panicked a little. As Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, we often meet people and connect with them by spending time talking about their lives. I felt a bit unqualified to interact with people who had difficulty remembering things about their own lives, and I was saddened just thinking what it must be like to be in their shoes.
I didn't know much about dementia but heard it can sometimes be difficult to work with people who suffer from it. Although my grandfather had Alzheimer's, I didn't have a lot of experience to rely upon, and it was intimidating to imagine asking questions that simply drew no response other than a blank stare.
What would I ask them? I just can't imagine forgetting things about my own life, my experiences and the accomplishments I cherish, memories I value, how to do things, my identity – the very things that make me who I am! I sensed it was going to be a sad day.
However, our visit to the Autumn Leaves completely changed my perception. How do you treat those with memory loss? As we learned from the staff, the answer is, "Just as normally as possible." While the purpose of our visit was to simply bring the residents a little joy, I immediately realized that'd I'd be the one leaving with a gift.
We met all the residents. Some barely talked initially, but as time went on and we continued to talk with them, they opened up. We could see the smiles start to form and their eyes lighting up.
My favorite moment was when a woman I had spoken with earlier motioned me over very excitedly. I could tell something had sparked a memory. She told me that she used to play piano and that she wears her mother's wedding ring every day. I think she even surprised herself with this little tidbit. The happiness on her face at recalling this memory brought tears of happiness to my own eyes. What an inspiring moment!
Missy and Nina are caretakers at Autumn Leaves. My own brief discussions with them, as well watching them interact with their patients, was impressive. They seem to pour their heart and soul into their jobs. And while I'm sure not every day at a nursing home is pure happiness, as those with dementia get confused and frustrated, Missy and Nina don't seem to miss a beat. I've never met more positive people, and they helped ease my mind that our elderly can experience the most gentle and incredible care if they are fortunate to find a place like Autumn Leaves.
Although she cares for her residents every day, Missy said that most days her patients ask her, "Do I know you?" You would think this person, who gives her all to care for them, would be sad that they don't remember her. But Missy is so positive that she just laughs it off and responds with a bubbly, "Yes Ma'am!" or, "Yes Sir!" Missy never seems to get frustrated or discouraged by her patient's varying degrees of memory, and I was impressed with her upbeat personality.
Missy and Nina told us they work hard to organize events and outings for their nursing home patients despite the patients unfortunately not remembering them later. But these caretakers said it's all about living in the moment and seeing their eyes light up and experience some joy. That is what makes their exhausting preparations worthwhile.
And that was the gift both Kashara and I left with: To value the pleasure in "living in the moment." To enjoy life as it unfolds in front of you. To appreciate your experiences as they are occurring! Those things you can never lose …
Kashara and I really enjoyed the residents opening up to us so much that when it came time to leave, we just weren't quite ready. We stayed a bit longer and played a game of "don't let the balloon touch the floor," at which, as it turns out, the patients are amazing.
We loved bringing a little joy to the Autumn Leaves residents as well as meeting some family members and the sweet and supportive staff. I'm looking forward to our next visit.