I'm pretty sure my life-long interest in volunteering owes in large part to my evangelical upbringing and my marriage to a woman big of heart and very concerned about unfairness and lack of opportunity.
As a consequence I found myself working with church youth in Illinois and Virginia, lay counseling couples at National Presbyterian Church in DC, and teaching youthful prisoners in the DC prison in Virginia. We two worked together as volunteers. Perhaps the most challenging and educational volunteer work I took on was as a costumed minister and “clerk” in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was asked to lead singing for groups of visitors to educate them in the evolution of Protestant church singing in the period from the colony's founding to its independence. On occasion I got to read old sermons from the 17th and 18th centuries from the high pulpit of the Bruton Parish Church. Most of these opportunities were well beyond any earlier experience I’d had and my own comfort zone. Accepting these opportunities helped my personal formation and enabled me to experience more empathy and, yes, love for people of many stripes and conditions.
Perhaps the work I felt most called to do was to volunteer in the Memory Care Unit of the large nursing facility, which is part of a life care community we call home. Volunteers for the Unit were formed into a “concierge group.” We received training through videos taken in various nursing homes, discussions with workers in the field, and introductions led by a skilled lay leader to some of the residents. The residents’ conditions ran the gamut from memory loss and dementia to severe cognitive deprivation. Our leader made connecting with the Unit residents look easy. We concierges visited about ten or so residents each week. Some were bedridden, others were engaged in activities, and still others sat by themselves. My first day I introduced myself to a woman who flat out said she did not want to talk with me. At that point I began to question my calling. Things got better but I never became totally relaxed in the two or three years that followed. I tried different ways to reach MCU patients, searching libraries for poems, humor, and religious and popular American songbooks. A number of residents were experienced in choir or Sunday school teaching. In such cases I found it helpful to sing with them or read from the Scriptures. Some times I sang popular songs with a resident and would be joined by one or two others sitting close by. “O Susanna” and “Home On The Range” were favorites. Familiar poems would please others. Some would recite along as I read. Still others would be able to speak them by heart, even get emotional over them as one did over “The House by the Side of the Road.”
It was difficult to know how to reach some of the patients, especially those with severe impairment. Simply holding a hand or being a silent presence was all that I could do at times. One woman I visited who was bedridden often had a daily newspaper and reading glasses on her bed stand. She was unable to talk but could make sounds to show her reaction to things. I read stories that had a humorous or interesting ending, which she seemed to enjoy. One day my hands were cold and as we held hands she felt them, let out a gasp and began to rub them. I had no idea she could show such affect or caring. The next week on my visit I found she was sleeping soundly. The following week she was not in her room and I discovered she had passed away. Right or wrong, my takeaway is never to underestimate what occurs in the mind and in the heart of a memory-impaired person.