For many years I worked nights in nursing care homes for people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. I remember one night looking after a frail lady in her eighties who required total nursing care.
Sadie, I will call her, was bedridden, communication seemed very limited indeed and she had a very bad chest infection. She made no demands, accepted all our washing, mouth care, adjusting her position, remaking her bed with apparent indifference and seemed to have little awareness of her surroundings.
One night, about 3 a.m. in the morning, I saw one of her few possessions. It was a small, beautiful art nouveau picture frame with two young women smiling towards the camera. I held it up to the nurse I was working with and who had known the lady for a few years. "Oh that is Sadie with her sister. They lived together in a large house a few miles from here. Sadie was a teacher in the local school. She had been engaged but the boy was killed in a tragic farming accident and she never married".
The nurse told me all about her life and suddenly the woman lying in the bed smiled. "That's your sister in the photo isn't it Sadie?",said the other nurse. "Yes darling", Sadie said.
It was a great moment. Sadie spoke and for me in that moment it transformed the way I saw this sick, old lady who was near to death. Suddenly she had a history, a life full of interest. She had been young and pretty, had been much loved by her parents and a sister who had cared for her until she died. It was those happy memories that seemed apparent in her smile.
Events like this still help to remind me that we should never judge people by the circumstances they find themselves in, or for that matter, how they present themselves to others. It's easy in an anonymous place like a hospital or some care settings to forget that whole person, especially when disease and age means they have to move into care facilities, away from the familiar. Relatives can help greatly in providing a context around a person's life, although this isn't something I tended to come across often during the night shift.
Personal possessions are so important for people in care homes, but they are very important for staff too. They individualized people with Alzheimer's disease. They help show the things they used to like smells- perfumes, soaps, their tastes- clothes that reflect their lives, memory books put together by relatives that give care staff a pictorial vignette of the lives they had before they got Alzheimer's, got old, lost their memories and the capacity to remind us who they were and are. It gives the person their voice.
Published On: March 17, 2008