The other day at work, I was doing an ice breaker with a group of students. I asked, “If you could get dinner with three people from any place and time in history, who would it be and why?” As we shared in a circle, we had some great ideas — Taylor Swift, Charles Darwin, Barack Obama, and almost every Food Network star. When it was my turn, I admitted I couldn’t share the names of my three people for privacy reasons. If I could get dinner with three people at any time or place in history, it would be with three of my favorite patients and residents I’ve met at work. In the past, these ladies were activists, leaders, scholarship founders, and decades ahead of their time. Now, as they are in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, I catch glimpses of their wit and power when the fog breaks briefly. I would give anything to see these women in their prime, and to thank them for shaping my future career.
The biggest thing I’ve learned in college is how to see past your own experiences, and understand through the eyes of others. As an aide in both a nursing home and in home care, I experience the impact of aging on a daily basis. What hurts more than the falls and aches and weariness that comes with age is losing one’s memory. Every day, I clock into work in 2016, but I spend my shift dancing through the decades.
Some days are good — like when a previously nonverbal patient sings a song with me. A lot of days are bad — watching the fear in my residents’ eyes when they don’t understand where they are, who I am, or when in time we exist. But most days… most days are a beautiful learning process. I’ve time traveled to Paris, drawn pictures of the New York City skyline, and flown across the world with my memory care patients.
Over 5.3 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia, a condition where the brain is quite literally dying. But if a silver lining can be found, it’s in music. The parts of the brain that recognize and are stimulated by music are the last ones to deteriorate. If you play music from someone’s era, their brain will light up like a Christmas tree. So when I sneak out my phone at work to play big band hits, I’m not leisurely listening — I’m engaging my patients and waking up parts of their brains that have been quiet for too long.
And as a future physician (focusing in geriatric primary care), I began working as an aide to boost my application. But over the years, my work becomes less about my own path, and more about the beautiful sights along the way. Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is hard. I’m talking being screamed at and hit, getting soiled briefs thrown at you, chasing your fall risk patient down the all as they try to escape, crying during the car ride home kind of hard. And still, even through the tears, I will tell you how much I love my job.
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”
Alzheimer’s and dementia is one hell of a brick wall, so thank God for my tenacity and stubbornness. I live for the moments when my patients briefly come back to me — they’re few and far between, but seeing the fog lift from someone’s eyes is so rewarding. I will happily climb a brick wall for twelve hours just for that one special minute of clarity.
There is a lot of research on music impacting Alzheimer’s and dementia. My platform with the Miss America Organization is Music & Memory, and our goal is to provide memory care patients with MP3 players to keep their brains alive and engaged. If you’re interested in learning more, donating an old iPod or funds, or helping out, please contact me.
“There is one thing Alzheimer’s cannot take away, and that is love. Love is not a memory — it’s a feeling that resides in your heart and soul.”