Everyone wants to be needed. We all want to feel we're making a difference in someone else's life. It's a universal human need.
When I began volunteering to visit some ladies with Alzheimer's at Brookdale Senior Living's Clare Bridge memory care facility in Overland Park, Kansas, I felt like I had something to offer them. Some company. Some entertainment. A way to pass the time on what might otherwise be an empty afternoon. That sort of thing.
Little did I know I'd receive so much more than I give. If someone had told me that I wouldn't have believed them. I was only doing it to help others. Not to gain some benefit for myself. Well, how wrong I was. I receive so much more from these ladies than I could ever give to them.
I just returned home from my weekly visiting and I'm sitting here lost in thought. Lost in the memory of my just-completed visit to Ruth. (Not her real name.) I know I shouldn't have a favorite but I do. Ruth is my favorite.
She was quite confused today. She told me that she had tried to rent an apartment that she liked very much, but before she could conclude the deal they fixed it up for someone else.
I knew that wasn't true but I empathized with her. "Oh, I'm so sorry," I said.
Then I changed the subject to something pleasant. "I see you have some Sees candy here. Do you want a piece?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "Will you have a piece with me?"
"Of course!" I answered. "Give me that box!"
After eating more pieces that I can tell you without embarrassing myself, I told her to save me some for next week. She promised she would and we laughed as we hid the box so no one else would come in and eat "my" candy.
We then discussed a wide range of topics. She told me her son had locked her car in the garage and so she couldn't drive any more. Again I empathized with her and again I subsequently changed the conversation to something more pleasant. We went right back and started laughing and talking about that candy and where we'd hidden it.
When I finally told her it was time for me to leave, she got a pouting look on her face and asked, "Oh, do you have to go?"
"Yes, I'm afraid I have to leave now. I wish I didn't, but I'll come back and see you next week."
"What day?" she asked me.
"Thursday," I said.
"Thursday. I'll try to remember that."
"Oh," I said, "You don't have to remember. I'll find you." Then I added jokingly, "I'll hunt you down and find you wherever you are!"
We both laughed and she seemed relieved she wouldn't have to remember what day I am coming back.
Then she walked with me to the door. She put her arms around me and hugged me very tightly.
"Oh, I sure am glad you stopped by. I depend on you. You're my best friend," she said.
"I love coming to see you," I said.
Then I stood back and looked at her. Her eyes were brimmed with tears. I was touched and hugged her again. Then we went through our usual parting ritual and she cheered up.
"See you later," I said.
"Alligator," she said, a twinkle in her eyes.
"After while," I continued.
Without missing a beat she jumped in and said, "Crocodile."
"See you next week," I told her as I went out the door.
"See you," she said, smiling and very gently closing her door.
This is why I volunteer. I felt warm all the way home. And I'm looking forward to next week when I can "find" the candy and enjoy some. But mostly so I can see Ruth again and experience the warmth and love we have in our very special relationship.
Marie Marley is the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of information and advice for Alzheimer's caregivers.