“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” -Benjamin Franklin
This quote, which apparently has several variations when trying to research its exact origin, came across my Facebook feed this morning. When I read it, I thought it was a near perfect way to describe how we should approach memory care. Tell a person with dementia something, and they will often forget it, teach them something they may remember, but engage them, include them in the full process and they will learn and be filled with purpose and joy.
Each program I develop, each moment spent with an individual with dementia, I make sure that they are directing, I am simply facilitating. I work to make sure that a connection happens that is more than verbal. That we laugh or cry together. That we create and study together. That we connect emotionally. Many times, if I share with someone my name, they will forget it, sometimes because of dementia and sometimes not. If I share my name and the origin of my name they may, next time, remember my name or that my last name is German. But, if we sit and talk, learn about each other and find a common bond, things start to happen. Through that common bond, we may create a greeting or a phrase to say every time we see each other.
There was a woman who I was told, was having more bad days than good days and that she was a “challenge.” When I met her she was friendly and not the person I was warned I might visit. We talked for a while, learning about each other, and looking out the window as the April day slowly started to show signs of spring and the warmth of the sun poured through her window. Through our meandering conversation, I learned she loved poetry. I asked her who made the cut for her favorite poets, and the last name she said was, Robert Louis Stevenson. That name hit me and suddenly a memory came flooding back. I could hear my mom reading that poetry to me. I had tucked that memory back deep in the corners of my mind and our conversation caused those memories to come rushing back. The only one I could recall at that moment was My Shadow, or at least I could remember how it started. I shifted my body to face her, smiled, looked her in the eye and said, “I have a little shadow…” Her eyes lit up and she replied, “that comes in and out of me.” In that connection, we created what became our greeting until the day she died. That connection was a gift to both of us. We made a leap forward to become relational with each other, we learned about each other, we created, we explored how we might work together. We developed an emotional connection that would survive the bad days and pull us back together when we drifted apart.
In that moment she gave me the gift of remembering a piece of my past. That day I didn’t tell her my name, my title, or why I was there. I didn’t explain to her how our time would be spent. I involved her in conversation and invited her to become a partner in her care. I invited her and she accepted the invitation. Moments like this don’t always happen, and it doesn’t mean that every moment that follows will be easy, but it does mean that we acknowledge our shared story, our shared connection. That is why I continue to swim upstream in the current landscape of care, and I invite you to join me.