This visit with Bernie was unique because I got to spend time getting to know many other people, too. When I got there, Bernie was eating lunch with her five friends, all of whom are in a similar stage of Alzheimer’s as Bernie is. They have short term memory impairment but are very social, actively engage in conversation, and love talking about their past. I sat down at this table with the warmest welcome from Bernie, who immediately stood up when she saw me and offered me her seat. I smiled and hugged her and pulled up a chair right next to her, exactly where she wanted me. I started by introducing myself to the group and two of the ladies that are always in the exercise class that I go to each week, said that they know me, which was really neat! The turned to the other ladies and said “this is our good friend.”
Bernie started off the conversation with asking me what is up in my life. She wanted to know what I am studying I am studying for and what my goals are, which is the usual update that I give her right off the bat. I am a pre-med student and every time I told her that I want to be a doctor, all of the ladies would say things about proud they are of me and how much they love their doctors. One woman told me that her husband and three sons are doctors, so she knows very well the road it takes to get there. She told me to stick with it because doctors never stop learning and to her, “that is a beautiful thing.”
As the lunch conversation went on, I realized how much of their personal lives they were trying to include when giving me advice. So, I started asking them about their past and they were on a roll. I heard about everyone’s husbands and children, where they used to live, and what the do in the workplace. One woman is from New York and when another woman heard that she was from New York, they began discussing what streets they used to live on and in what neighborhoods and it turns out that they grew up close to each other! This made them so excited. These moments of clarity, when recalling distant pasts, feel so good for these individuals and they really light up when they talk about their careers and children. I told them all about my family and showed them pictures, told stories, and shared memories of my childhood. While they were bragging about their children, as all proud parents do, I bragged about my sisters. This was a great experience for me because, while I miss them when I am away at school, talking about their successes brings me so much joy. Bernie loved when I showed her my dog and got a kick out of the fact that she is a girl and her name is Charli. She laughed and laughed and her smiles were contagious to the whole table.
This visit was very positive because it solidified my belief that the best way to engage with people with dementia is to talk about the past. It alleviates any frustration that comes from a lack of short term memory and it brings them back to the happiest times of their lives. One woman asked Bernie how she met me and responded by saying “she was sent from god.” I laughed and told Bernie how much I look forward to our visits and everyone at the table told me that it was the best part of their day. This made me feel that the work we do as volunteers is productive and impactful because I know how much joy young people bring to people with dementia.