I work at a senior memory care center. People with dementia need human connections now as much as ever
It’s one of the long-ago days just before the pandemic, and I’m sitting in The Ivey dining room surrounded by the people I spend my work day with, the individuals I think about in the evenings, and the faces that sometimes make an appearance in my dreams. Music is all around us.
Suddenly I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. As I look behind me, a hand extends, and two very kind eyes ask me to dance.
The smile on his face says it all: This is what will bring him joy today.
At The Ivey, I work with a team that helps those living with dementia. The population here is aging, and many of them have additional ailments. They come to us for help with brain stimulation and overall wellness. Our job is to support our members and their caregivers with quality of life and to help with lifestyle changes. Along the way, we get to know the members and their families as if they are our own.
Throughout Charlotte, many of us have experienced loneliness during the pandemic. Research suggests that social isolation exacerbates cognitive impairment. Older adults experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at an increased risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions.
After being closed for five months at the beginning of the pandemic, we at The Ivey have seen firsthand the effects of isolation. It is a serious public health crisis in our community, in which elderly people sometimes find themselves unexpectedly alone due to such circumstances as the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, or lack of transportation. Statewide, more than 16 percent of the population is over the age of 65, and more than 160,000 are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.
People who engage in productive activities with others tend to enjoy better moods, a sense of purpose, improved cognitive function and a longer life. For those living with dementia, the necessity of these activities is abundantly clear.
Knowing this, we pivoted and found a way for our members to come back onsite with masks, physical distancing, diligent sanitation measures, and a feeling of safety.
I’ve seen more emotions in one day than the average human experiences in a week.
We work through tears and anger, frustration and laughter, as the caregivers struggle through this disease. I have stories that could fill many a book and many a heart, but there is one that continues to come to mind when I think about my time here.
Stan had severe congestive heart failure. Some may argue that dancing may not be the best activity for someone who has a 75 percent blockage in his heart. We sit with his wife at our family care meeting and talk about what life with Stan is like at home now, what resources she may need, and our observations of Stan during his time here at The Ivey. I bring up the story of the shoulder tap he gave me that day. Stan’s wife smiles and for a few moments she drifts away as she thinks of her husband asking me to dance.
She recalls a simpler time in their lives when the two of them would go dancing on a date night or dance together in their living room. A tear runs down her face, yet she still smiles.
When she is ready, she lifts her head, looks me dead in the eyes and says something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Something so meaningful that it would change the course of how I view my own relationships and connections from this moment forward.
“Jen,” she says, “if my husband dies dancing in your arms, I can’t tell you how happy that would make me. Stan would die doing something that he loves doing with someone who cares for him very much.”
It was a genuine moment in which her only hope was for her husband’s happiness. To take away the pain, anxiety, and exhaustion that comes along with the dementia journey.
I am surrounded with a group of “angels.” It’s a title often given to the staff I work with, by families traveling through this journey. They’re a team with a purpose, a team that has, in the face of COVID, found a way to make it work both onsite and virtually so we can still provide wellness to those living with dementia.
Whether we are hearing stories from a pastor on how he and his wife raised their children, a schoolteacher who recalls the feeling of making fried chicken with her mother, or an engineer who extends a hand to see if I would like to dance with him that day, an indescribable warmness fills this room.
We humans are social creatures. Our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive.
Today, we as caregivers must be inventive to ensure older adults and those living with dementia have the opportunity to engage in meaningful, life-affirming activities — whether in person or virtually.
Wellness is much more than your physical health. It’s a lifestyle that improves quality of life by enhancing the body, mind and spirit. And often, that takes the form of human connection — a brief moment to bring a smile to someone’s face, a bit of light into their eyes, or a few steps on the dance floor.
The Ivey, like many senior organizations, welcomes volunteers who’d like to help virtually. A nonprofit organization, The Ivey’s also running an end-of-year campaign to help build on its Virtual Activity Center, which helps give 25 live virtual programs a week to people who can’t attend in person. Visit its web page for information on how to volunteer or donate.
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