Jul 16th 2008

Alzheimer’s and the power of love

Posted in Izzy, Mary

Izzy, getting a hug from Mary, and a big smile

July 16, 2008 – When I began hospice work, I confess I was drawn to comfortable notions of death and dying, gentle conversations in well-kept homes with articulate people and loving families. It wasn’t easy, but it was familiar, and I suppose, comfortable.
As my work as a Washington County, N.Y., hospice volunteer has advanced, I find myself more and more in situations I could not imagine being a year ago, and which make me intensely comfortable sometimes, and challenge my own ideas about courage and love. We go into adult homes with deformed and disabled people, and lately, and most powerfully, Izzy and I are spending time in the nursing home wards with people suffering from Alzheimer’s, and dementia.
It is an alien world, and Izzy and I have much to learn, and we are just beginning to understand it and get comfortable, more confident, walking into these spaces with people who seem lost, talking in tongues, shouting, crying, staring vacantly into space, walking in circles, gesturing. Izzy didn’t know what to make of it at first, and neither did I. I suspect I will never be comfortable in those spaces – protected by locked doors and security codes. It is another world, and like most people, I never saw it because I didn’t want to see it. But it is our world, too, part of our life, and I always think, they were once me, once us.
It was the hospice staff and the nurses who showed me the power of love and patience, and, of course Izzy, who has a genius for connections. These workers are loving, patient, clear, gentle. Eventually, it seems, they get through.
There is a way of speaking to people with Alzheimer’s, a way of communicating, of getting there. I am just beginning to learn it. You have to believe there is a spirit there, and talk to it, even if you can’t see it or hear it always.
I am determined to learn more, to do what the nurses can do. It is quite extraordinary, even magical, when there is that spark of recognition, that smile, that connection, when you know that you have broken through and made contact, affirmed humanity, and also the power of animals in our lives.
Mary was sitting alone in her wheelchair, napping when Izzy and I came in. A nurse woke her up, and she looked disoriented, almost angry, and then after a few minutes, her hand settled on Izzy and he pressed forward, and she smiled, and said, “my, my,” and remembered her dog, a “grumpy little mutt,” and then retreated into her own time and space, and was lost to us. We sat with her (Keith Mann of hospice joined us) for nearly an hour, and she talked about this and that and sometimes looked at Izzy and reached out her hand to him.
Then, we we were done I patted her hand and said goodbye. “We’ll be back,” I said, but she didn’t answer.
Then we asked the nurse for the security codes, walked past a half dozen patients sitting in chairs, talking, looking away from us, and we punched our way out, washed or hands as volunteers are required to do, and left.
I have to say I am increasingly drawn to this world, fascinated by it, determined to enter it somehow, and with Izzy’s help, I just might. We will be back, and often. Mary lit me up.