The other night as I was trying to fall asleep, my mind began to wander. Without warning, memories of my childhood home surged like never before. I am not sure if I had fallen asleep leaving my subconscious to have a hay-day, or rather, in my slumber something triggered me to think of days and places long ago. The next morning, the images of places and things from the 1970’s and 1980’s were both crystal clear and extremely vivid.
You see, my father was a Southern Baptist minister in the deep south. We moved quite a bit, covering almost every Southern State- going wherever a new preacher was needed (and voted in). Being a young child, maybe 6 or 7 , I can recall moving to a small town in Alabama, which excited my siblings and I because the new Parsonage had more bedrooms and the church had a small jungle gym playground. It was an exciting time for us!
After we had been there for a while, my brothers discovered a huge, sky-high- tall Oak tree that had so many limbs, which made it very desirable for us kids to climb. Naturally my brothers could climb like monkeys and would swing off its branches- jumping to the ground from what I thought was “way t0o high to be doing that”. Our mother would yell from the screened in porch,” Boys stop doing that before you break your neck. Are you watching your sisters? Boys????” They would reply, “Yes maa’m, they are here somewhere.” ( The” somewhere” part was whispered only loud enough to be heard by God because they surely would not tell our mother the truth.)
So, to make the truth more promising, one of my brilliant minded brothers made a decision. ” Okay, since we have to watch you, you have to come up the tree with us and do what we do so mom doesn’t make us stop doing it because we have to watch you. If you are doing it too, then we are watching you do it.” Sure, that makes all the sense in the world- maybe to a 7 year old girl. My sister who was older and so much more mature, made her own plans to go inside and “go to her room“- which was cool back then. Off she went while I studied the giant, bark filled, super big and round, mountain top style tree. Could I, a small little kid climb such a tree without breaking my neck which my mother had already predicted ? I watched the boys climb higher and higher and higher eventually losing sight of them amongst the leaves and branches. Only one brother waited patiently for my ascension into the heavens- my twin, Michael.
“Come on Jess…..just come on. It’s just a tree. Trees are fun!” . I caved under the pressure and started my upward journey. We climbed higher and higher, leaving the ground further behind us. Without thinking about it, I glanced down….wayyyyy down. Without warning, my little heart skipped a beat. Suddenly, I froze. Like ” froze froze” in mid air, close to where God lives,……wayyyyy up there.
Then it happened. Snapping branches. The sound of something falling heavily through the rustling leaves. Swoooosh. It had happened j just like mom said- he was gonna break his neck. I looked down to see my older brother Wayne, laying flat on his back. Laughing. Hysterically. THEN…. I heard my mother’s voice.
“Daniel Wayne!!!!!! You better get up from that ground! Those are school clothes. The rest of you get down from that tree and get to your chores. NOW.”
My brothers, swinging like monkeys, flew past…grabbing from branch to branch, jumping to the ground. Then silence. Dead silence. ” Hey! Wait for me!……hellloooooo….wait for me!!!” Silence. The ground was so far away. The closest branch was at least 5 miles away. I clung to the tree as if it were our wedding dance….yelling for my brothers………
I can recall the event of that day like it was yesterday, even though it has been well over 45 years ago. Memories are for the making, almost certain never to be forgotten, regardless of advanced age, or the disease process.
Dementia may cause some to forget when they had their last meal or even how to feed themselves, but some things are not forgotten. I have sat with residents and listened to their stories…..so what if they think the event is happening in the present instead of 45 years ago? Have we ever considered that when a resident is looking for a parent, believing they are still alive, that maybe it is a memory that sparked the thought? Have we given attention to when a resident is constantly “trying to catch the bus”, that maybe they rode the bus to work, made friends along the way and are missing that experience? Not every misplaced memory or life timeline is “confusion”.
We as health care professionals lack the art of true listening. We consider the ramblings of the dementia patient as “agitation” and “cure” it with medication to “reduce anxiety.” Take Betty for instance. Betty stays in my office all day long, shuffling my papers, hitting buttons on the copier and inserting herself into conversations. If I leave my coffee unattended for a split second, she drinks it. It can be very challenging to maintain my sense of calmness when she moves a certain document or jumbles the 50 pages that were in order when they printed on the copier. But here’s the deal. Betty was/is a licensed therapist; a former educator, and an ordained minister. When guest arrive in my office, Betty is no longer a dementia patient- she is there for them; to offer her services as a counselor. All of Betty’s memories are of the good she has done over the past 70 years. For me to discount her who rob her of the very memories that she is bringing back to life. She may have forgotten who she is, where she lived, or may not even know that she is a dementia facility. But she is not forgotten who she is.
We all need to listen a little closer to people and not call it “confusion”. We should listen and maybe, just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of the person- the real person who raised a family, had a career, took vacations, traveled abroad and lived their life the same we live our today. See the person, not the disease or disorder. Listen to their stories because their stories are their memories being retold.
How did the old Oak tree story end, you ask? Well, my dad just happened to walking from the church and heard my panic and fearful screams. I can still see him, standing below the tree, looking up and asking…”Sweety, how did you get up there? Hang on honey, I’m coming up to get you. There is nothing to be afraid of as long as you hang on” .
Once he had safely extracted me and we were safely on the ground, he knelt down and said…” Jessi, remember this day. Never follow the leader when you know you aren’t ready to follow. Don’t climb trees if you can’t get down. Always remember that.”.
Forty five years later, I remember. Forty five years from now, if I am in a nursing home yelling out…..”Help me down”….”Get me out of this treeeeeeeeee”…. don’t medicate me, let me enjoying my memory.