One of my clients was a PhD (x 2) applied scientist in coastal and environmental engineering for most of his life, and he was diagnosed with devastating condition that causes him to lose his memory gradually over time. His wife called my office and requested me for some shifts she needs staffed for next week.
I remembered a conversation I’d had with this gentleman the last time I was at his home. He was struggling over a basic multiplication problem. Later on that evening when I took him to dinner, he was staring at the menu struggling over basic addition. He got so upset with himself and said to me, “I used to create books and books of formulas that my fellow researchers would use. I pulled some books off my shelf not long ago and I couldn’t understand one thing I wrote in my own handwriting. None of the math made sense anymore. I asked my wife to throw it all away because it was so troubling to me. It’s all because of this condition. I want to fight it. I want to relearn how to add. Do you know of any math books that could teach me to add again?”
My heart was filled with compassion for him.
In a desperate attempt to console him, I came up with the idea of children’s summer bridge workbooks like my mom used to buy my brother and I between grades.
“You know, this may sound a little insulting to a man as intelligent as yourself, so you can just take this as a grain of salt, but it may not be a bad idea to purchase a children’s math workbook. They’ll walk you through step by step how to add. You can relearn. And whenever you forget, you’ll have the book to learn it all over again with. Maybe your focus can shift from what you can’t do anymore to what you still can do. And I think you can do this.”
He surprised me when, with a big grin on his face, he said, “I love it! Where can I get a workbook?”
“I’ll mention it to your wife.” I assured him. I did. I left his wife with a quick little note.
But then tonight, after she’d called my office requesting I return to pick up some shifts next week, I thought…this might be a nice chance for me to do a little something. For five dollars on Amazon, hardly a fraction of an hour’s worth of my pay, I can purchase a math book for him.
So, I sat down at my computer and I literally typed in the words: “Senior Math Book” thinking that nothing would come up or if anything did it would be way too expensive and I’d have to revert to looking for children’s books. But to my great surprise, several very affordable options came up!
I’m thrilled to say that I’m purchasing an illustrative senior math book designed for people with his exact condition. I’m going to wrap it up for him and give it to him as a Christmas present when I see him next week. I love my job so much. It’s so rewarding!
Tomorrow, another one of my clients is moving to a downstairs apartment. She’s lived in her current second story one for 13 years, so this is quite a change. She too suffers with memory loss, hers more affecting her cognitive functioning abilities. I’ve observed that her memory loss becomes dramatically more severe when she is nervous, placed in an uncomfortable situation, or is confronted with change.
It took me two months to get her to let me into her apartment without a phone call to her daughter and my office and lots of convincing. Getting her to let me help her was another chore in and of itself. And now, she can’t wait to see me everyday. I leave her each time with a big smile on her face.
However this week, whenever I’d come by her apartment for my one hour appointments with her, I’d sit at her kitchen table and visit with her after walking in the door. Then, following the nurse’s care plan to get her weight past 80 pounds, I sat with her trying to brainstorm a grocery list, knowing that even as we created the list, she’d be forgetting the first items we wrote down. I scooted my chair close to hers so she could see what I wrote down.
I’ve become the master at giving the elderly with memory loss a few cards they can play. Like many elderly with memory loss (who are aware of it), they don’t like to admit they’ve forgotten things. It’s an honor thing, a saving-face thing. So I’ve turned it into a game. “How can I give her the power to remember without making it obvious?” I ask myself on a regular basis. So, I inject verbal cues into conversations that I know from past experience with that person will trigger a memory, or like now, when creating a grocery list, I sit close to her so she can read it while I write it in case she forgets what we’ve already brainstormed together.
She interrupted our list making this week to tell me, “I think I’m having second thoughts.”
“About grocery shopping?” I asked.
“No,” she chuckled. “About moving. Leaving this place.”
She looked around her little apartment, sparsely furnished, the sun filtering through the remaining leaves on the trees outside. It warmed the room, created a cheerful glow.
“I love the sunlight, how it fills it up.”
“It’s grown on you, hasn’t it?” I asked her rhetorically. “Places have a way of doing that. They become like old friends when you live in them long enough. Kind of like they know you somehow.”
“Exactly,” she replied, sighing.
But I’d been through this before in the week. It was now my job to spare her daughter a hysterical phone call with her mother crying out “I need to call off the move” -by redirecting my client and encouraging her.
“Change is really hard, isn’t it?” I asked her, almost as though I were asking the advice of a grandmother.
“It is. Life is full of change. Constant readjusting. And, well, when you get to my age, it isn’t quite so easy to change.”
“I can imagine,” I replied. “What number is your new apartment?” I asked her.
“****” she told me.
“I have an idea,” I suggested. “Do you want to come with me to ask the manager if he’ll let us go in there so we can look at it again? Sometimes it helps to look at it. We can go there, and start envisioning where we’ll put things, how we’ll make it like home for you. Where we’ll put a Christmas tree, your bed, your chair.”
She grinned. “Oh could we? That would be fantastic.”
So, we went down to her new apartment with the manager, and there were workers inside replacing the carpet. I jumped on that opportunity. “Every time I vacuum you always tell me how you need new carpet. Now look! Your new apartment has brand new carpet being installed!”
She smiled. “Boy, that sure is nice!”
“And look, the layout is really similar. Come with me to the window. Let’s see the view from your balcony.”
I pointed out several notable objects just beyond the cool glass that we pressed our noses and palms against, leaving little marks behind.
“It is nice,” she commented, seeming a little more comforted.
“It will be hard,” I told her frankly. “Moving here, and all. Thirteen years is a long time. It will even be hard for me to adjust, and I have only spent a few months visiting your old apartment! I have come to love that sweet little place. The change will be an adjustment for everybody. I think you’ll come to like this place though, given some time. I will too.”
“You’re right,” she agreed, grinning. “Alright, let’s go shopping.”
Later on, she commented on some flowers her granddaughter brought her that brightened up her current apartment. I also noticed a sorry looking bunch of fake holly she’d laid out on a shelf in an attempt to be festive this season.
After a 9 am appointment with another client tomorrow, I’m going to her place to work with her and her daughter to get her unpacked and settled in. I figured I’d stop by the store beforehand and pick up some flowers and a Christmas ornament to make her new place a little warmer.
Again, it doesn’t cost much, but I know it will mean the world to her. Another reason why I’m absolutely in love with my job. Every day has a gift wrapped up inside of it that fills my heart up regardless of whatever stresses or worries I have going on in other parts of my life. When I go to work, something really special happens as I interact with the folks I help each day. It’s very special, and I’m so blessed to have that!