So I volunteer with a program that goes to nursing homes and does art therapy sessions with elders with dementia. Yesterday night was our big, end-of-the-year art show. As a student leader, I do no have a partner that I meet with every week. Rather, I help lead and facilitate the weekly sessions. Because of this, and the fact that I’ve only been involved for a year, I haven’t known any of the elders over a very long period of time. I seriously love each and every one of them, but I haven’t been around long enough to see the changes that the disease has been forcing on them.
Last night I was helping direct pairs of students and elders, and helping people get in and out of the elevators and find their partners. My nursing home was one of the very last to arrive, and they had to make two trips in the bus to get everyone there. In the second bus, there was a woman who I didn’t have on my list. One of the women from the nursing home told me that her name was Jean, and that she’s been active in the program in previous years, but has gone downhill recently and had to stop coming. Because she wasn’t a regular, she didn’t have a partner. She was the last to come up the elevator to the show, so I offered to sit with her and take her around to see the art.
Jean was really struggling. She spent most of the show half asleep, and the other part of the time she seemed to be in the throes of hallucinations. She would reach out a carefully rearrange things on the table, then act like she was kitting or sewing, or picking things up off the table to set in her lap. She did not talk beyond a few incoherent mumbles and did not respond to my talking to her.
After a brief ceremony where the volunteers and elders were recognized, I took Jean around in her wheelchair to see the art, including a piece of her own. Again, no reacting and continued hallucinations. I kept talking, though, and showed her pieces some of her friends had made. As we were going around, I had a woman come up to me. She was ecstatic to see Jean, and really excited that I was helping her around. She thought I was her partner. I told her that I was actually a leader, and was just filling in. This woman started telling me about Jean. Jean before the disease took its tole.
Jean loved to tell stories. She would sit there during art sessions and talk her partner’s ear off, telling them about her day, about her past and family, about something funny another resident had done, or telling them a story that she had made up on the spot. She had a definite way with words. And her art was amazing. She was very detailed and illustrative, drawing figures rather than abstract shapes. She loved the art sessions, both for the people she got to see and the pieces that she made.
I could hardly believe it. I just couldn’t match up this description with the woman I was pushing around in her wheelchair. It was as if she was describing a completely different person. In a way, I guess she was. Alzheimer’s has taken away the person she was before, and has left this sleepy, unresponsive woman in her place. This was the first time really where the disease had been brought home to me, hearing stories about how she used to be and seeing how she is now. It made me so incredibly sad, especially when I thought of the fact that the person she was is probably almost gone for good. That woman who told stories and drew amazing pictures has disappeared forever. And that’s going to happen to all of my other amazing artists that I love, given enough time.
We finished going through the artwork and went downstairs to wait for the bus. She was still hallucinating, but seemed a bit more alert. She actually opened her eyes to look at me where I was sitting in front of her. She started to talk. I couldn’t understand almost anything she said, but I tried my hardest to respond appropriately and keep talking to her. She seemed happy to just have someone there listening and paying attention to her.
The bus finally came and I took her outside to board it. As the worker backed her until the wheelchair lift, I told her that I was really happy that she had kept me company during the evening, and looked forward to maybe seeing her at the next art session if she was feeling up to it. She looked right up at me and told me that she would like that. She then smiled, shook her head, and told me that I was a beautiful girl. I almost burst into tears right there. Here was a woman who was struggling to retain herself in the face of a devastating disease, and who was clearly losing that fight, and yet when she came back to herself for a brief time she still was incredibly kind and appreciative. Most people would have seen Jean and written her off as a vegetable, not worth their time. But with just a little attention, some kind words, and a listening ear, she returned enough to offer some kind words of her own. She just demonstrates to me that every single person is worth our time and effort, and that even the tiniest things can be regarded the greatest victories.
I was so glad I got to spend time with Jean, and I genuinely look forward to doing so in the future. Hopefully she’ll feel well enough to come to art therapy every now and then!