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Volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients is something I’ve thought about doing since my mom died at the end of 2012, but part of me felt apprehensive about it. Would it hit too close to home? Would my emotions get the best of me? Would it just be too painful? Was it too soon? I don’t think the grief ever really ends; it just changes with time – but it’s ever present.

All valid concerns under the circumstances, but it had been nearly 2 ½ years. Quite frankly, how could I know whether or not I was ready unless I put myself out there? I would either be fine – or I wouldn’t, but all the pondering in the world wasn’t going to answer that question.

The First Step

Last week, I had my orientation and it went well. I left the building feeling good about the community and the staff members I’d met that evening. The 15 minutes spent in the memory care unit bolstered my confidence in the decision to work with dementia patients. So many of those sweet faces reminded me of people I’d met in Mom’s last four years of life – people I had fallen in love with.

Alzheimer’s may have changed the LOVE that you share, but it can’t ever, will never, have the power to ever completely erase it.   -Mara Botonis

Over the ensuing days, I found myself feeling excited, but also a bit uneasy. Just about anything unfamiliar is accompanied by some level of trepidation, and this was no different. Of course, the fact that I came out of the womb worrying probably didn’t help, but what’s life if you don’t step out of your comfort zone every now and then, right?

The Day Arrives

Throughout the day of my first shift, my mind wandered to thoughts of the coming evening and how things would go. Finally, the workday ended, and it was time to head over to the community where I would be volunteering. Rush hour traffic gave me some time to organize my thoughts before I arrived, and I was glad of that.

I signed in and made my way to Memory Care, where I took a deep breath, punched in the security access code, and walked into a brand new experience. An experience, I must say, that was more than I could have hoped for.

The residents were finishing dinner and gradually moving over to the common area. It all felt a bit awkward initially as I didn’t know any names and I was still trying to get a sense of the evening routine. With each passing moment, I found myself feeling more and more at ease and it wasn’t long before I knew for certain I was just exactly where I was meant to be.

Memories of Mom

Moments of joy with Mom at Eason House

Over the course of the evening, I spent time with two women in particular who reminded me very much of mom at various stages of her illness. The moments where similarities came forth made my heart leap inside my chest – flashbacks to treasured moments of joy.

One of the ladies, mostly non-verbal, surprised me several times by perking up and responding to my words. When I complimented her on the bright red blouse she was wearing and told her that red was one of my favorite colors, her eyes met mine and she quietly, but very clearly said, “Me too.” For a moment, her expressionless eyes sparkled.

Creating Moments of Joy – for Them and for Us.

There was no mistaking “Mary’s” contentment as she reached out and took my hand in hers, squeezing tightly. Yet from across the room, her vacant exterior had me fooled into thinking she would be completely unresponsive. It took less than a minute for me to see how wrong I had been.

Later, as she began to smile and laugh, I asked if she was happy. Again looking right into my eyes, she sweetly said, “Very happy.” I can’t even describe how I felt at that moment. There was something about her laugh and the expression in her eyes that reminded me of mom in the late stages.

All of us who love someone with Alzheimer’s know that feeling. A visit that includes a smile, a couple of words clearly spoken, or a few moments of clarity is better than a winning lottery ticket. We wait for those experiences, and when they come, it’s pure magic.

The Gift of Time

I’m told that of 40+ Memory Care residents in this community, only about five have regular visitors. I think that’s astounding, and it’s probably indicative of what’s happening in Alzheimer’s units around the nation.

If you’ve ever thought about volunteering, I urge you to take the next step. The all too common misconception is that dementia patients are merely a shell of a person. People mistakenly think, “They won’t remember my visit, so why bother? “ Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it’s true that they may not remember the details of a visit, I feel confident that the resulting feelings last long after we’ve gone home. Ten or fifteen minutes of loving,  listening, and kind attention can make all the difference in the world to someone who spends so much time alone.

These are beautiful, living, breathing human beings with emotions, spirit, and so much left to give. They deserve to have the best quality of life possible and we hold the keys – all we have to do is meet them in their world rather than expecting them to be fully present in ours. At the end of the day, they give us so much more than we could possibly give them.

I was emotional as I walked out of the building after my first volunteer shift. Indeed it brought back all kinds of memories – good and bad – but my heart was overflowing with love and purpose. I knew that in those couple of hours, I’d made a difference in a few lives. and they had certainly made a difference in mine. Nothing beats that.

To find a volunteer opportunity, reach out to a care community in your area. The need is great, and your query will most likely be met with sincere gratitude. I’d love to hear about your volunteer experiences! Please leave a comment below sharing your story! 

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