Today's conversation with geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc Agronin about his new book How We Age caused me to harken back to my days of working with the elderly. There was a time when, while I was juggling a couple of unpaid internships, I worked as a Life Enrichment Coordinator at a retirement center in Maryland. This is a fancy way of saying that I did activities with the elderly. We did word games, movement activities, trivia, sing-a-longs, Bingo, and the like. It was a nice way for me to make money while feeling like I was contributing to the world, making it a better place, etc.
This is an assisted living facility and the residents are all on different levels. With some you can just hang out, play cards and talk about the good old days, and with others it's like meeting for the first time... every time.
Sometimes, it was hard to keep coming back with energy, to tell that story about my weird name and where it comes from for the millionth time, or to re-explain the game that we were playing just five minutes after starting. But it always felt good at the end of the day, even if they wouldn't remember me the next day.
One morning on the way to work, I heard a piece on NPR that assured me that whether or not the residents remembered me, my work was important.
A study published by the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences found that in patients with amnesia, the emotion tied to a memory lingers in the mind even after the memory is gone. In terms of Alzheimer's patients, this would mean that even if your grandma doesn't remember your visit, she'll remember if you were sad or frustrated and that emotion will last when you've left. Whether the residents remembered my activities or not, I ushered joy into the day.
The main point of Dr. Agronin's book is that "life up until its last moments has its own ways and meanings." Everyday is important. So on this day of love, if you don't have a Valentine, in the traditional sense, give love to an elderly person in your life. It will make a difference.