I work with seniors, most of them have some level of dementia. I care for their most personal needs. I help them eat. I help them with bathing and toileting. I wipe their hands and faces. I dress them and change their Depends. I put bibs on them.
For all of this, they tell me their stories – often and repeatedly. Every time I react as if I was hearing their story for the first time.
Why do I do that? Because it is what they have left of their dignity. It makes them feel important. It lets them remember with pride their younger life while they have to live with the humiliation of needing assistance with the most basic of daily activities.
It is important to them to have their stories heard, acknowledged by another human being.
They need to know their stories hold value.
They also have a disease that means they cannot remember telling me their stories.
So, each time they tell me their story it is, to them, the first time. This means that if I’m dismissive to their story because I’ve already heard it, to them I’m being dismissive to their pride, their humanity, their value as a person.
So, I listen to their stories with the same rapt attention each time. I rejoice in their achievements and successes. I laugh at their humorous anecdotes. I sympathize with them over their losses.
As I bathe them, I laugh at cute stories of their children.
As I clean them up after using the toilet, I smile as they tell me about their school day hi-jinks.
As I get them dressed, I cheer for their personal and professional successes.
I acknowledge their value as everything is being stripped away from them by a horrible disease, this is why I listen to the same stories over and over again responding as if it was the first telling. I am giving them something back.
Dignity. Honor. Pride. Humanity.