Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ministry of Presence in the Alzheimers Wing

It has been a week since my last post. Four of those days I was at the conference and three of those days I spent getting caught up on everything I missed while I was away at said conference. One of the things I did to get caught up was to go and visit Anna. (name changed for privacy)

Anna lives in the Alzheimer's wing of a nursing home.

You press a red button on the wall to get the doors of the wing to open. This is a security featured designed not to keep people out, but rather to keep people in. I pressed the red button and had to sidestep a woman whom I did not know in a wheelchair right in front of the doorway as I entered. She looked at me and smiled. "Did you get it all right?" she asked.

I didn't know what she meant, and I don't really think she did either. I smiled and took her hand, saying, "Yes, ma'am. Everything is all right." She grasped my hand with a strength that I would not have guessed her slender, elderly frame could muster, and she pulled me close. She laughed with what might have been relief.

"Oh, good!" she said, "I was hoping that you would be able to" and so on and so on. Sometimes she made sentences and sometimes she just put words together at random, like drawing them from a hat. I don't remember what all she said, but I remember standing with her hands clasped desperately around mine, holding me close in the middle of the hallway for a good two or three minutes as she told me all kinds of very unusual things. She hugged me a couple of times. Through it all I just smiled and held her hands, until I was able to gently pry myself free. I continued down the hall to find Anna.

On my way, I wove through a score of wheelchairs that contained mostly women who had lost their memories, didn't know for sure where they were, what they were doing here, perhaps even having no real sense of self. Who are we, anyway, if not our memories? What is it that makes us more than biological machines? Where does the self reside? Alzheimer's disease is a monster, whose only objective is to rob its victims of everything they once were. I smiled and waved to everyone I passed in that hallway, and I got a few waves in return.

I made it through the gauntlet and stepped into the dining room at the end of the hall. I spotted Anna sitting at a table in her wheelchair, along with the other people who reside in her wing. I knelt by the side of her chair.

Anna is a very beautiful woman. She has shining white hair and deep, wise laugh lines in her face. Her lovely eyes convey a sparkle of wit and grace, and looking at her you know that if it wasn't for the monster steadily stealing her mind away, she would be dancing or strolling in a garden or attending a fabulous party or something.

"Hi, Anna. I'm Andy, the pastor of your church," I said.

A confused look came into those lovely eyes. "Who?" she said.

"The pastor of your church."

"What church?"

"Yours, Anna." I named the church.

"Oh, yes," she replied. And then she thought for a moment, then asked me something that gave me a little electric jolt in my heart. "How are your two children?" Then, noting my pause, she continued, "You have two children, right?"

She remembered? Or did some synapse fire randomly and came up with "two children"? I smiled and pulled out my wallet to show her the pictures. "Yes, they are doing just wonderfully," I replied. After that, she meandered away from the topic. As she went, her eyes became more and more puzzled, like she had forgotten something.

Our conversation comprised short bits of coherent discussion that popcorned from topic to topic as Anna led the way. Interspersed amidst these moments of coherence were long stretches of mumblings from behind her beautiful, confused eyes, as Anna worked to dredge words from the muddy river bottom of her mind. Once she asked me about my mother. We talked about her husband. We talked about food. Through it all, I knelt beside her wheelchair with my hand in hers and my eyes locked on hers, hoping that our physical and visual connection was compensating for the lack of verbal connection we experienced.

But there was that one moment. "How are your two children?" Out of the formless void, something was created with a few spoken words. And it was good.

After about fifteen minutes with Anna, I said goodbye, greeted the nurses on duty, wove through the wheelchairs back down the hallway, entered the code that unlocked the doors of the wing (the nurses had whispered it to me), and left the building.

What happened in the Alzheimer's wing? Will Anna remember that I came to see her? What did our hand holding and eye contact do, or what was it? What is the significance of that one moment of verbal connection? I don't really know. And I guess I don't really need to know. I suppose I'll just trust that God was there somehow, and leave it at that. It was ministry; I am a minister. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Andy B.


David said...

Some of my most precious memories date from my Seminary field work in several homes for the developmentally disabled. The soul is a beautiful thing, even--and sometimes, maybe, especially--when the mind seems not to be "right."

Thanks for the reminder, Andy.

Peace and worth,


Peggy said...

This brought back a lot of memories to me as my dad was in the Alzheimers unit for two years before he died. Most of the time he didnt' know who I was but I still enjoyed just sitting with him and trying to bring up past memories for him to see if he would remember them. One time while sitting in their main didning room when I was about to leave I said "Well Dad, I have to go now do I get a kiss before I leave?" He looked at me then just yelled out (which was not like my dad at all), "does anyone here want to give her a kiss?" By the way I did get a kiss and I left that day with a smile on my face. He gave me more memories to keep of him.

Thanks Andy for your "blog"


Anonymous said...

My grandma died about 7 years ago after a long and horrible fight with Alzheimer's. She still comes to me in my dreams, but I never hear her speak in them. I wonder if that is what she went through when her mind was emptied of memories and words. She is only fleeting glimpses in my dreams. Was I at the least a fleeting memory when she was so ill? You're story of your conversation with Anna makes me think so. Thanks for seeing Anna. I know it made a difference, it has to me.

Peace to you,

Shelly :)!