Elders – From Fear to Joy

Written 10.1.12

Yesterday, our three granddaughters came over for five hours while their parents accepted an invitation to the Broncos game. They brought some homework and Josie – the middle girl – 11 – had a current events homework assignment – about the Presidential Debate to take place on Wednesday evening. She had already chosen her newspaper article – a BIG one!  She had to write a summary, define several new words from the article and give her own opinion. Our son, Brett – Josie’s dad – had already said to her “Ask Grandpa to help you. He knows a lot about current events, economics and history. And, he’s a good teacher.”

Well, Grandpa’s mind and personality are not what they used to be. We, as a family are reading this book, “Creating Moments of Joy” by Jolene Brackey. We gave a book to Herb, too. It is about connecting with the dementia person in ways that activate long term memories and bring the person back to experiences of the past. Samantha – the oldest at 13 – has already naturally experienced this. I had asked her how she had that hour long conversation with Herb and she said: “I just asked him, Grandpa, have you ever met a president?”  She knew he had been a tour guide in Washington, DC after his retirement from the U.S. Government as an economist. Herb told her yes, he had met President Clinton and shook his hand on the National Mall when President Clinton had been out jogging. Then the long conversation was off and running about Herb’s experiences as a tour guide.

As a therapeutic clown, I know that is our intention when we go to trauma wards, where there are often brain injuries, even those in and out of comas. Everyone has a spark of soul/spirit in them and the purpose is to find a way to connect with that spark at that moment. I know that spark is always there – although there are varying degrees of how and how much that spark is clouded over.

Well, yesterday, Josie asked Grandpa to help her. At first Grandpa had his “short term memory loss” response of sort of deflecting and distracting communication. I said to him, “Herb, Josie is asking you to help her with her homework. I know you are a good teacher and current events is one of your favorite subjects that you know a lot about. Why don’t you settle down and help her?”

And, he did!  They went through the whole article, discussing concepts, clarifying words, understanding issues and on and on!  After about 1 ½ hours Herb said: “I’m getting tired”, but Josie said: “We only have one more thing to do.”  So they kept on – two hours in all!  Herb was back into the reality of helping and teaching our kids at grade school age. His voice was kind and clear and he made sure Josie understood each thing before moving on. He was totally present and responsive. The other two granddaughters and I were in the sunroom doing artwork and we were amazed. While the Broncos were winning, we all had our own victory in our family.

I have often wondered what kind of fear and anger and frustration is underneath the memory loss and dementia. How it would feel to that trapped spark of life in the person, who wanted to get out and be free again!  It could even be a fear that could feel like terror.

When Brett came to pick up his three daughters, Josie told him that Grandpa had helped her for two hours and she had almost completed the whole assignment (which incidentally wasn’t due until Wednesday). Brett said: “I wondered if you were going to have the courage to ask him to help you!  Good job Pop!!!”  Herb of course was beaming, and so was Josie and so were all of us!!!

Then Brett said: “This is what the book is about!  Creating Moments of Joy!!!”