A volunteering story by: Diane Damplo

Marci was more than happy to relate to me her volunteering experience at a local Alzheimer’s facility in Kearny Mesa, CA. When she signed up she met with the organization’s Director and was assigned to what was referred to as the early stage program. She worked from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. one or two days a week. She also had a part time job working at a retail clothing store so the flexible hours fit in perfectly for her.
Her tasks were to help the Activities Coordinator and work directly with the patents in a group environment to sustain and boost their cognitive and physical skills. A common drill was to have the patients sit in a circle and simply toss or pass around a large rubber ball.
According to Marci, the cognitive skill exercises she taught were particularly insightful. It seemed that most folks retained a fair bit of long-term memory but not short-term. Marci supervised certain exercises where the patients sat in front of a chalk board and she would write down a word or phrase and ask the clients to express what it meant to them. The goal of this word activity was to help them lose their inhibitions and to think freely. She would throw out words like ice box, washing machine or color TV. She said the patients often responded with a personal memory or connection to the item.
One time she was working with a small group on the exercise of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Each client had their own station so the exercise could be broken down into separate definitive steps: station 1: take out the bread, station 2, spread on the peanut butter, station 3, spread on the jelly and station 4: put the sandwich together. It seemed to be a useful repetitive exercise but so often the patients couldn’t resist the urge to invade, cross over or grab into someone else’s space. Marci often wondered if this behavior had as much to do with Alzheimer’s as it did with need for attention or social interaction.

The Inspiration

Some time ago, Marci happened upon an HBO documentary about Alzheimer’s, its causes, symptoms and the resulting mortality rate. The show really struck a chord in her. She had a great grandmother who she loved very much who was afflicted with the disease but Marci was very young at the time and didn’t really understand what was going on. In fact, folks didn’t use the word Alzheimer’s back then. Marci was told that her loved one suffered from dementia or “old-folks disease.” Marci was thirteen when the sweet lady died and she remembers her clearly and fondly. The TV spot inspired Marci to learn more firsthand about Alzheimer’s and to give back to her great grandmother now in some small way something she was too young or naive to do for her while she was still alive.
Marci also recognized that she was in a ready and willing time in her life to commit to this part-time commendable effort. She was married but did not yet have children of her own and was only working part-time. She was physically strong, felt mentally balanced and had the time and space in her routine to give volunteering a focused effort. And her husband was always volunteering at the synagogue where he attended. Marci had done a little work there herself, mostly helping set up flower arrangements for weddings and other special events but she said she never felt quite as spiritually committed to work in a faith based arena as her husband. However, she did admire and commend his efforts. It was time for her get more involved.

The Aha! moment…

Marci said that she learned that Alzheimer’s has no physical financial, socio-economic, race or age biases. It can afflict anyone, regardless of their current status or condition.
It was disturbing to see how some folks even needed deadbolts on their doors so that they couldn’t wander away at night, whether purposeful or not. Marci also encountered folks who suffered from Huntington’s Disease, which like Alzheimer’s can progress slowly but predictably. Early symptoms include problems with mood or cognition but as the disease progresses folks suffer from uncontrollable body spasms and a decline in mental facilities.
Sadly, one poor woman who was housed with her spouse didn’t recognize him one night and tried to call the police to report an intruder. But ironically (on a different spectrum), one time when Marci was outside in a garden area with one of the younger patients, the poor gal kept pointing to the roof of a building next store, insisting that there were men walking around up there. Marci finally humored the gal and turned around, only to find that there were indeed construction workers up on the roof. Who knew?
And it was also a little sad, when one of the patients was had to be moved “graduating” to a higher level of care. Her clients were early stage and so were capable of understanding and feeling scared at the sight of someone moving “up.” Would they be next?
Marci also learned how some scars can run very deep. She had to counsel and console more than one relative who was dropping off or visiting a loved one that albeit innocent and needy at the moment had otherwise been neglectful or even abusive in the past.

To summarize it in three words…

  • memories, sympathy, patience

Why should you do this

Marci said that she would readily recommend that people volunteer at an Alzheimer’s facility in a similar capacity, especially if they have a big heart for seniors.
She remarked that It is sometimes sad how few visitors these seniors get, even when they come from or have their own large families. Unfortunately, it’s just too common that we fall over ourselves to aid and provide solace to infants who can’t care for themselves but we shy away from and sometimes even turn our backs on elders with similar needs. After all they have given us in nurture, wisdom and support they deserve better.

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