Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Every Life has a Story

Every life has a story (apparently I am now the spokesperson for The Biography Channel, anway ...), I learned the truth of that statement when I worked as a unit clerk on the Alzhiemer's unit of a personal care home. Here was a whole wing of a facility filled with people who were lost in their own lives. They had slipped from the life they were leading and into some kind of alternate universe haze, or at least that's what I thought when I started working there. I felt sorry for them.

What I came to realize during my time of stuffing charts and typing patient histories, is that although it was sad for their families, most of the residents were content, most of them had returned, in their minds, to a happy, successful, busy time in their lives. There is no doubt that given the choice most of them would have rather been living in the present with their loved ones but since that was not an option, somehow they went to the next best thing, a time when they were vital, important and needed.

My first encounter with this alternate existence was with Mrs. Perry. On my first day on the job she asked me to help her plan a trip to Edmonton to visit her daughter. She had me looking up bus schedules and pricing out transport to the bus depot. About 45 minutes into our trip planning session the nurse on duty asked me what I was doing. When I told her she burst out laughing and asked me to follow her into the office.

When she finally regained her composure she told me that Mrs. Perry has been planning the same trip at least twice a week for the last five years and that I needed to better understand the type of peole we were caring for, so she handed me a pamphlet called 10 Things to Know About Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s. She told me to read it and to spend some time reading the family information and nurses notes sections of the residents’ charts. I read the pamphlet and got a better idea of what Alzheimer’s was and then I dove into the resident charts. Soon I was spending every lunch hour and coffee break reading charts and visiting residents. These people had lead remarkable lives and I wanted to spend some time getting to know them better!

Although most residents had returned to a familiar time in their lives, like Dr. Davis who spent his days reviewing patient charts (we had to set up a carousel full of fake charts for him because he kept wandering off with actual resident charts!), there were some residents who shocked their families with the lives they had once lead.

Mr. Jack, who had lived his life as a math teacher, had once attempted to summit Mt. Everest. When he began talking about packing for his expedition, a couple of years after his Alzhiemer's diagnosis, his kids were confused. They had no idea that their dad had ever actually done anything but teach math to junior high students. Finally they tracked down an old friend of their father's and discovered that it was true, their mild mannered, math teaching father had once been a great adventurer. Beyond the Mt. Everest trip he had climbed dozens of peaks in the Rocky Mountains. He had also tried deep sea diving and surfing in his college days.

And then there was Rose, the former Vaudeville performer turned pastor’s wife. She started every morning by declaring, “I’m Rose May and I love it!” and then she would break into one show tune or another as she carefully arranged her hair and make-up. Her grown children had a hard time reconciling the flamboyant Rose May with the demur minister’s wife and stay at home mom of their childhood, but they loved seeing her smile so they accepted this new Rose and learned all about her secret past through the window of her memory.

I think about Mr. Jack, Ms. May and dozens of other remarkable people I met during my year working at the personal care home. I think about them and their hidden lives when I meet someone new and wonder what their story is. I think about them when I watch my kids grow and learn and become people … I wonder what their story will be? And mostly, I think about them when I reflect back on my life. I hope I live my life in such a way that my kids know the very best and very worst of me. I hope they will learn that every life really does have a story and its all the peaks and valleys that make it worth living.

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can. ~Danny Kaye

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