Every Sunday I scroll through the obituary pages. I hold my breath as I follow the list and pray I don’t recognize a name. I breathe a sigh of relief when I get to the bottom and I didn’t recognize a name, or, like what has happened a few Sundays in a row, my heart sinks when I see the name of someone I have worked with in the past or present. “It is strange that a 28-year-old looks at that page of the newspaper,” some have told me. This weekly ritual is an outcome of my job. Some call it an occupational hazard, and if so one I will gladly take on. I don’t think of it that way. It is part of living, of coming to care about another individual. Every day I am asked to become relational with those whom I work for in the memory care, assisted living, and nursing home communities. In becoming relational we teeter on that balance between professional and personal relationships. I come to care about them, and they come to care about me. I become a sort of niece, granddaughter, even sister to them, and they become additional grandparents, uncles, and aunts.
The individuals whose names I saw in recent weeks were especially impactful on my life. They made me smile and were sources of great learning. The first person caused me to ask questions, to think about how I care for someone. My eyes were opened wider because of the stories she shared with anyone who would listen. I gained insight into what it was like to grow up in Nazi Germany and live through the horror of that time, to move to the United States post-WWII as a German. I learned what it was like to be a university professor and a great scholar in the 20th century. The second individual was someone whom I did not spend as much time with, yet taught me to laugh a little more freely again. We connected through a similar faith, and love of family. He reminded me what it was like to leap, and the freedom that came from doing so. Many of the stories and moments shared will remain between the two of us.
Reflecting upon these stories and moments shared, I am again aware of what dementia can not destroy. I am reminded of the lessons these individuals still could teach, and hope they could still inspire. All too often I see people brush off our elders, not bothering to take time to hear their stories that help make the listener a better person, our society a better place to live. We have so much to learn from our elders regardless of the journey their life has taken, regardless of the diagnosis in their charts, and how they appear to be sitting in the chair across the room. A better future comes from learning what our elders lived, what they learned, and what they wish to pass on. Take a moment, sit, listen, and long after they are gone, still hold in your heart their spirit. It will make you a better individual, a better care partner. I can guarantee you that much.