I was serving my internship at a long term care facility, one of my assignments was to lead a reminiscence group for older veterans. I had absolutely no idea how to reach these men, and often felt that trying to get them to open up about their experiences was like trying to eat soup with a fork, impossible! I tried to start conversations out of thin air, and a personal sense of my own experience in the military. I did manage to elicit some reminiscence; for example, one gentleman shared with the group his experience of being a bugler with MacArthur’s army in the Philippines.
However, for the most part, the silence was deafening. Later in my career, when I learned how to adapt the Montessori Method to our work in memory support, I realized that the most important thing you can do to start the conversational ball rolling is to put something in a person’s hand. If you know that someone is a baseball fan, you can give him a baseball to hold or a baseball mitt. Just this simple act of giving people a meaningful object to hold, can open up a treasure trove of memories.
I was working in an adult day center on Veteran’s Day, being assisted by a young man who was a doctoral candidate in psychology. When I explained to him that I was going to bring to this group of 15 veterans some small American flags to celebrate Veteran’s Day, he recoiled in horror! Wasn’t I concerned that I might bring about some trauma with a discussion of flags and military service? I assured him that if anyone became uncomfortable, we would change direction and do something else.
I handed out the small flags to each veteran seated around the table. First, the group began to wave the flags, and then, much to my surprise, one of the veterans exclaimed that there were too many stars on the flag! With that, the group began to count the stars and to name the states. I started to write down the names of the states as the group came up with them. Often, when a state was named, someone would come up with a memory about that state. So it went until the group managed to name all 50 states! This was not the experience I expected to have that day, but that’s the flexibility that’s necessary for successful engagement. It’s not what you plan that matters; you should remember that you serve as a guide in the Alzheimer’s journey.
More recently, I was working with Bob, a Viet Nam veteran who had early onset Alzheimer’s. I was told that Bob loved old cars, and so I went to a junk yard and collected some vintage hub caps for Bob and me to polish together (using non toxic metal polish). My thought was that we would have a good conversation about older cars. Instead, when Bob started polishing the hub caps with me, he started talking about his experiences in Viet Nam. I think it must have been the act of polishing that reminded him of the days he spent polishing his boots in the army. Again, I was completely surprised by the response to the planned interaction. It becomes more and more apparent that these interactions teach me the importance of starting out with a great plan and being willing to change directions and follow the lead of the people you are working with.