Summer has officially started and Vacation Bible School and Youth Week at St. Luke’s is coming to an end. Two of my children have participated in VBS and one has participated in Youth Week . . . and boy are we tired!
During Youth Week the teenagers in our church have the opportunity to serve others. They have the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and do something for strangers, for people less fortunate than themselves. Some of these strangers have far less than our children and some of these strangers have lived wonderful active lives within our very own community and are now “living in a different type of community.”
No, I am not writing about my summer plans, I am still writing about dementia but today dementia had a different face. Today, the youth of St. Luke’s went to a nursing home to spend some time with some men and women that needed to see a friendly face.
Now, I am all about brightening someone’s day but, part of me was thinking that this was absolutely not what I signed up for! I agreed to drive these teenagers to a senior center and maybe do some manual labor or play a game or two. But God has a sense of humor. Dang it!
We quickly realized that the senior center was not expecting us so on to plan B, a nearby Nursing Homes. After a quick phone call to a well-connected friend, we were off to the Nursing Home to do something “helpful.”
We got a good laugh about a group of Episcopalians heading in to a Methodist facility. I guess that was our first hint that God has a sense of humor. We all serve the same God and we are all doing work for the good of others. Methodist or Episcopalian we were in this together today!
The kids were quickly sorted into groups and escorted off to various parts of the Nursing Home. Some were off to play bingo, some to paint fingernails, some to sing and others were taken to living rooms simply to visit with a resident or two. And then there was my group. I quickly realized that we were not going to play bingo and it did not look like coloring was even going to be an option.
After a quick survey of the room I noticed that three of the ladies were holding baby dolls and four others were staring blankly at the TV or the table in front of them. Crayons and coloring pages were handed to the teenagers and each teenage girl hesitated to approach the ladies. We were clearly in the memory care unit and most of these ladies were no longer verbal. The baby dolls were their babies and most of them wanted to go “home.” The girls tried unsuccessfully to talk to the women. Some girls offered crayons to the blank faces and then decided maybe it was best if they colored the pages themselves. This was going to be a long afternoon! God was seeing what we were going to do with this life lesson.
I headed over to one of the tables where three rising seventh graders were seated next to a woman holding a baby doll. I sat down and immediately started telling the resident where these girls were from and what they had been doing all day. All of my talk fell flat on the blank stares of Ernestine. One seventh grader whispered to me that she could not understand what the woman was saying, so she just smiled and agreed with Ernestine. What could I say? I could not understand Ernestine either. During the silence that seemed to go on forever, I realized that Ernestine was reading the teenager’s name tag and spelling her name over and over. G-E-O-R-G-I-A K-A T-E. Over and over and over again. Georgia Kate and her posse of three did not give up. They sat with Ernestine for an hour. Sometimes talking, sometimes smiling and nodding and sometimes they just sat with her. They were just being there with a stranger. Did they make a connection? Maybe or maybe not. But these girls did not shy away from this awkward situation. I am sure they wanted to leave. Heck, I wanted to leave! But they stayed and they colored and they were there. Sharing space with a woman who was content spelling their names over and over and over.
Forty-five minutes into this nightmare also known as Youth Serve, another high school girl comes to me and says “We need a conversation starter. All she wants to do is go HOME.” This sounded very familiar to me so I moved from one table to the next in hopes of helping the girls start a conversation. A conversation that does not involve going home. Let me tell you that this is very hard to do with a total stranger! After attending a dementia support group for several months and reading all kinds of books, I know all the things that you should not say. These sweet teenagers said all the wrong things: What did you have for breakfast? Does your family live here? Is someone coming to pick you up? They did not intend to say the wrong thing. They were hoping to have a conversation. Mary was happy to give answers to their questions. We have no way of knowing if the answers were correct or not, but this quick exchange between the three of them helped time pass.
I looked at my watch and wanted to scream when I saw that we had another hour to spend in memory care. I was not sure the kids could take another hour and I knew that I could not! Fortunately we were able to make an exit and go to another floor for a more lively game of Bingo before it was time to flee the scene!
The teenage conversation after this event was interesting. Many of the kids quickly pulled out their iPhones and the last two hours were quickly forgotten. Other teenagers looked sad maybe even depressed. Since I am seldom at a loss for words, I asked them if they thought this place was depressing. Many of them nodded in agreement. I tried to cheer them up by telling them that although the residents may have looked sad, they were probably not sad at all. These residents were perfectly content living in their past, loving on their baby doll and waiting on their ride home. I explained that “home” is not a physical address but rather a familiar face. This thought had never occurred to the youth.
As we climbed into the steamy car to head home, one teenager said “I enjoyed that.” My first thought was that I was glad she did, because I was ready to get the hell out of Dodge! I asked why she liked it and she explained that on one afternoon she learned something about the service project. On the next day, she helped someone by doing some manual labor to make their space a happier place. But today she made someone feel better. Ok. She was right, I was wrong and for a brief moment this fourteen year old was wiser than the fifty year old driving.
God has a sense of humor. We were all pushed outside of our comfort zone and asked to make someone happy. Sounds easy enough. If left up to my own choice, I certainly would have picked bingo over memory care but “we” did make some people happy today. I am not sure if we made the residents happy or just lightened the load of their caregivers for that brief moment in the middle of a long afternoon.