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“How to Communicate with Elders with Memory Loss” – A Volunteer Workshop

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From Left to Right: Karen Soorian, Cindy Adams, and Chelsea Theran

If you want to volunteer in Boston, this city has some amazing opportunities. For those who want to volunteer specifically with isolated elders there are two amazing organizations to turn to: FriendshipWorks and Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Both organizations amaze me in how dedicated they are to enhancing dignity and providing friendships. They really care about what they’re doing and go out of their way to improve not just the elder’s experience but the volunteer’s as well. While the most important thing a volunteer can do is simply be present, just be there and listen, both organizations want to ensure that their volunteers feel like they are learning and growing from their experiences. To do this, FriendshipWorks and Little Brothers schedule workshops biannually to hone in on some difficult aspects of working with isolated, frail elders.

Yesterday I attended one of these workshops called, “How to Communicate with Older Adults with Memory Loss”, at Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain. The event featured two incredible speakers. The first was Program Director of Sherrill House’s Special Care Dementia Unit, Chelsea Theran, and the second, Director of Social Work, Cindy Adams. Everyone snacked on refreshments while listening intently to the advice.

Chelsea began the evening by discussing specific ways volunteers can communicate with older elders who suffer from dementia and other forms of memory loss. She highlighted the importance of clear and friendly communication. At the early stages of dementia it’s really easy for people to have difficulty finding words, or to easily lose their train of thought – you can help smooth that challenge by being patient and clear with what you’re trying to express!

Cindy spoke afterwards and gave context to Chelsea’s detailed advice on communication, by discussing her personal experiences from her work with hospice. She also gave suggestions about the kinds of activities volunteers can do with elders to help ease the difficulty of memory loss. For example, she suggested creating photobooks, putting together recordings from family members who live far away, or playing music as excellent activities that help those suffering from memory loss feel at ease. The common theme of all the activities listed was to encourage communication through sharing special memories.

Cindy’s final point was that for elders with memory loss, it’s not all about activities. “Just being present…is a tremendous source of comfort, “ says Cindy. She shared with us a story about one elderly man she worked with who visited his wife everyday for five years. Each day he would walk in wearing the same outfit: white shirt, khakis, and suspenders. He greeted the staff cheerfully as he hung up his hat and coat, and then went in to visit his wife, who suffered from dementia. He would read her their old love letters, or poetry, or sometimes just chat aimlessly. He did this without fail everyday, for five years. His wife never said anything. One day, Cindy pulled him aside as he walked out of the room, finally needing to ask him “How are you?” He answered with tears in his eyes, “Today was a good day. We made progress.” He told her that morning his wife looked him in the eyes and said, “Thank you for all the time you’ve spent visiting me. I love you.”

She died soon after.

“I love this memory because it shows how we have no idea what impact we have,” says Cindy during her speech,  “Never give up the hope that it’s getting through to someone no matter what.” The greatest thing we can do as volunteers is perhaps also the simplest – just be there.

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