During my Junior and Senior years of college, I worked in a residential health care facility (nursing home) as an Activities Assistant. I needed a job to pay my rent. But I also wanted a job with purpose. I was working on my BSW and was a social worker in training, ready to change the world. So, I thought this would be an entry level way of gaining experience in working with older adults. What I have come to realize is that this was a job that taught me about humanness, living, dying, and quality of life in poignant ways, day after day. It transformed me not just as a professional learner, but as a human being.
My role quickly emerged as the Alzheimer’s Unit activities worker. I had true affection for the residents I worked with, and true empathy for their families. The most difficult encounters were the moments where a family member could see all the prior attributes of the person slipping away, and the person with dementia did not even recognize their family member as having any relationship to their present life. 50 years of marriage or a lifetime of parenthood would have seemingly vanished. It was heart wrenching. At the same time, there were unexpected moments of clear lucidity when it seemed as if every synapse fired at once and the true person shone forth in glory. Today’s point of light is one of those times.
I was sitting at the table in the Activities office writing a progress note. The door was open and my back was toward the door. Suddenly, I felt as though I was being watched and I turned to see one of my residents, Grace, who was a person with Alzheimer’s disease, standing by the sink filling her pockets with remnants of soap and other treasures laying around on the counter. Wandering and hoarding are very typical behaviors and I redirected her without over-reacting. Which means, I said, “Grace, can you help me? I really need to take this chart back to the nurses’ station and I also need to carry this glass of water. Could you put down the soap bottle and carry my glass for me? I would really be grateful.” Grace smiled and did exactly that, oblivious of her behaviors or wandering or who I was. I walked with her toward the nurses station and occupied her with some magazines in a quiet sitting area then walked back to my office.
Back at my desk in my office, I sat down and began writing. The office phone rang and I ignored it, in an attempt to finish my work. It rang again a few minutes later, and I ignored it again. It was a shared office, so I made a mental excuse that it probably wasn’t for me anyhow. I returned to my progress notes.
A few minutes later, I had the same feeling of being watched. I looked up to see Grace standing by the phone on the desk across the room. I said, “Grace, what are you doing.” I was probably sounding a bit impertinent. She turned around, looked at me and said, “Honey, I am standing here staring at this phone and wondering why a smart girl like you doesn’t know how to work it. Come here and I will show you. When it rings, you pick it up and say “hello” and then an operator like me, on the other end, will connect you to your party and you can converse. I thought I should come in and give you a lesson so you wouldn’t be afraid to pick it up next time.”
She looked at me with compassion, and recognition. She had worked as a telephone operator for years and in that moment, she assumed the fullness of her professional role and met me exactly where she thought I was at. Not a busy, overworked college student ignoring her phone and paying her bills by working between classes in a minimum wage position. I was a young learner, who could benefit from her years of experience. I said the only appropriate thing.
Thank you, Grace.
I meant it. I still do.
Indeed, Grace is in the present moment.
“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. Every breath we take, every step we take, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life