Friday, June 23, 2006

In Their Shoes..

Can you imagine that one day you wake up and you aren't sure where you are? or who the people you see are? You look at their faces, and see familiar pictures but you don't know their names?

Some one has to help you do "simple things" like helping you get dressed, bring you food, or tell you when to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom? What that must feel like? not being able to do it for yourself? Not being able to remember steps of a familiar routine or process... Talk about scary and disorienting.

Welcome to the world of dementia, again and my work in Geriatrics. I sat with a woman today who told me that she doesn't really know why she is here.. she knows she is in the hospital and could tell me the right one, and that there reason she was there was because she had mental senility. (I have never heard of it described that way before ..) I asked her how she knew this? did someone tell her this? or did she feel that way? That she was senile? "Someone sort of told me and I kind of notice it myself." She went on .. "I feel so alone. I don't know where I'm going or coming... I don't what to do."

I remember when I first started working in geriatrics some 8 years ago. I was training in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) in a nursing home in Nova Scotia. I was terrified of older people. I had not grown up with my grandparents nearby, so I was unsure of what I would say to them. (Mostly I was worried that my hearing problem would BE a problem, or hindrance of my work, but that is a story for another time.) I remember the first woman I ever met there. I call her "Lillian". She was in the beginning stages of
dementia. She knew that she was forgetting things.. like words, or common phrases... (but then don't we all from time to time.. I can't remember what/if I had for breakfast somedays) and it distressed her. To know that she was forgetting and realizing that there was very little she could do for herself.
Another colleague of mine told me about her "lady" that would look at the pictures in her room and go through all of them repeatedly and name all of the family members. After a while, she couldn't remember them. She knew they were her family or people she knew, but she didn't know exactly who. My friend was heartbroken to watch this mental decline.

Over the years, I have worked in long-term care. Since moving to Vancouver, I have started to work in acute care. From November 2002 until January 2004, I worked in a long-term care facility(LTC) or extended care (ECU). My colleague and I met many wonderful people, residents, family and staff. It is still hard to watch the decline of the mental capacities. And there are many issues that complicate geriatric life. As we are chaplains, my colleague would allude to the biblical verse about being lead where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)

When I first began to work with dementia patients, I had a hard time. I would cry for my lady, Lillian, and it was hard for my soft heart to watch. (coincidentally, I had cold hands and had to warn people about
it. They would reply "Cold hands mean a warm heart".) I hated the fact that I cried to see this. But I shared their pain and the burden became mine along with the staff and family members. I said to my own mother one day, "Mom I hope you never loose your mind and have to go into a facility". Of course, it was not the proper time to tell her this as she was trying to do some chores and I remember her harried response, "Dear, I am not old yet. And I don't plan to be for a long time. So stop this talk about nursing homes." (This
may not be exactly what she said, but is the general gist of it.)

It is hard to see your parents get old. It is hard to watch people age and succumb to illnesses. This is part of my work. To walk with them in what they are going through. I cannot take on their pain, but at least they are not alone. I am there with them to share the burden, and to remind them that God is with them too.

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