Wearing Dangley Earrings on an Alzheimer's Unit

I write about old (and dying) people a lot.  I know.  I want to say I'm sorry.  But I'm not.  It's not morbid.  It's your future, maybe. There is beauty in aging and I want to honour that.  Too long youth has reigned supreme and we are unprepared for what is to come. 

If you know someone who happens to have memory loss and lives on a locked unit, you may or may not want to read this.  I hope it will be helpful but I can see how it could be sad or hurtful.  This is just some insight into a few of my passions - shedding light on the vulnerable.  Perhaps I am still mourning my professional life.  

My favourite unit in the nursing home was the locked memory care unit.  It is most peoples' least favourite unit.  It's a world all its own and I loved it.  I miss it.  I had the pleasure of having two social worker interns and one of the things I preached was self-awareness on that unit.  Not only awareness of environment but of self.  The unit can have a very visceral effect.  I'd then do  quick body check to see if said intern was wearing dangley or hoop earrings.  The point is, you don't want to have anything that could be snatched and cause you bodily harm.  Makes sense, right? 

After falling hard and fast for these wonderful people, I ditched this smart caution.  Here's what I quickly realized, I wanted to bring my full, true self to them.  They deserved all of me. These degenerative diseases have left them, my clients, vulnerable.  Hidden vices have come to light and some have even been added.  No choice in the matter.  No facade. From cussing to masturbating - I've heard and seen it all (almost).  Ravaged by a disease or a few.  No less deserving than a king or queen.  Each and every one of them.  To that end, I wanted to show up for them.  Show my true self in some sense.  I did not want to take away my earrings or necklaces or heels because, in my mind, that showed distrust and hiding.  They cannot hide. 

So I showed up for them like I would any other client.  Enter the security code after making sure no one was hiding by the exit waiting to dart out the minute I got in.  Checked in with the unit manager (saints), checked in with the CNAs and nurses (ultra-saints).  As I mingle with the residents over time, you get to know them as they are in this time in their lives, and they get to know me.  Soon, as I greeted the ladies with a gentle touch on the shoulder, pat on the knee, shake the hands with the men, I developed a familiarity.  Funny, that word, in a world where nothing is familiar for too long.  Over time I got closer.  So close that a few of the women would reach up to touch my earrings.  An act of absolute openness and trust.  As that hand reaches for my face, I remain still, smiling, inviting.  A gentle touch.  I pray it doesn't end in blood.  But it is a risk I am willing to take.  If it means 15 seconds of humanity, what is an open earlobe?  Just another story to add to my life and to be empty of at the end of it.  Once I took this leap into being all in, it gave me the greatest pleasure to where shiny, gaudy, dangley, jingley things.  The ladies and I would ooh and aahhh over it and I would even take mine off and put it up to a few ears and gush about how much better she looked in it than I! I acquired a few vintage outfits to meet them where their memories were.  A better time for them.  The gentlemen were not left out as they were able to compliment a 50s pleated skirt.  Sure I still had moments where a few cat-like residents would scare the crap out of me by sneaking up behind me but most of those ended in both of us laughing at how jumpy I am.

I don't like to do scary things.  That includes roller coasters, scuba diving, jay-walking, using margarine.  I like to ask myself a simple question sometimes: what is worth my life?  Potentially being hurt (or worse) on a memory care unit where some have behavioral manifestations of their disease? Worth it.  I would like to make a point about the way I phrased that last bit about "behavioral manifestations."  Y'all know good and well I could have said behavioral issues.  But I think using the "issue" to describe what happens when your brain is hijacked and taken hostage by a disease warrants a different word.  Dementia is no joke.  It sucks.  It's a thief.  I will not minimize what it does to mere "issues."

Listen, I'm no saint.  As a hospice social worker, I would come and go. Those who work with people who suffer from dementia in any of its stages day in and day out, and Lord knows at night and during the full moon, are the real heroes.  I've met and learned from some amazing workers.  They show up to work and they love.  Because that is what it takes.  Love.  And dedication.  And those who love it, love it.  And they get to know their residents and adjust as they change and shrink.  Those workers would be the saddest when they saw me coming to see one of their favourites.  And I hated it, too.  But I was there to make a bad and sad thing not as bad or sad. 

To love an ever-changing person as they are slowly robbed before your eyes by an elusive thief.  My goodness! The weight of it cannot be fathomed by those who have not experienced it.  And so I will show up and I will wear those earrings and I will lean close to you and I will touch your hand and your face and you can touch my earrings. 
  I could tell a hundred stories about my visits to the memory care unit.  And I may, over time, do just that.  They are not to be shunned or tucked away, forgotten as they forget.  They should be joined in their journey.  They are deserving of our full and true earring-wearing selves. 


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