The Joys of Volunteering to Visit People With Alzheimer's

I arrived for my first half day of volunteering to visit three ladies with Alzheimer's at Brookdale Senior Living's Clare Bridge memory care facility near my home in Overland Park, Kansas.

Carolyn, my first lady to see, was sitting in the lobby with three other residents. I went up to her, introduced myself and told her I was there to visit her.

"Me?" she asked, smiling and sounding pleasantly surprised.

"Yes, you" I answered promptly.

She had already won my heart. She was delighted to have a visitor even if she had no earthly idea who I was or why I was there to see her.

We went to her room, where I gave her a small gift.

She said, "I'm sorry I don't have anything to give you."

To help her save face I pointed out that she had some cookies on her table.

"Sure," she said, laughing. "Take as many as you want."

Despite her shaky memory, Carolyn's social skills were so good you would have thought she was volunteering to visit me! And those cookies were some of the best I ever had.

When I left that day she said, "I hope I see you again," and she walked with me to the facility's front door.

I reassured her I would be back the following week.

"In fact," I told her, "I'll be here every week."

She smiled and said, "I'll look forward to it."

Unfortunately, Carolyn has since passed away.

After retiring last Spring I'd decided to volunteer to visit a few people at this facility -- especially those who don't have many other visitors. I got the idea from my dogs' veterinarian, Ann McHugh, DVM, who volunteers to visit people in a hospice care facility.

Ann told me it was rewarding, and I'd heard the same thing from other friends and acquaintances. I never believed them. I could understand how the residents could benefit from my visits but not that I would benefit even more.

So it was a surprise to learn it's true. No matter what mood I'm in when I arrive I always feel better when I leave. I truly do receive so much more than I give.

With one minor exception, each of my ladies has been delighted to see me. Despite the fact that they can't remember my name or why I'm there, they smile when they see me at their doorway.

I'm going to present here just a few of the other comments and signs of appreciation I've received from these women I now refer to as "My Ladies."

Let's take Ethel for example. Ethel seems rather lonely. Every time I step into her room, she immediately begins showing me a beautiful, elaborate quilt she made and a lot of clothes she'd sewn for herself before she developed dementia.

Then she points to each of the numerous family photographs in her room and tells me who each one is. I listen patiently and always ask her to tell me something about each of the people. Surprisingly, she remembers quite a bit about them.

Ethel almost never stops talking and showing me things. This makes her so easy to entertain. All I have to do is listen to what she says and make pleasant comments about each object. Even if she's showed it to me 10 times before.

Among the things she's said about my visits are, "You're like a friend I can talk to," and, "I sure do appreciate your visits honey!" (She always calls me honey.)

Last week when I left and was in the hallway she called out, "Love you." I was surprised - to say the least. I turned around and said, "Love you, too!"

One of my favorite ladies is Ruth. She once told me, "You're the only person around here I can have an intelligent conversation with." She and I always have great visits filled with laughter.

Ruth has an outstanding sense of humor that Alzheimer's hasn't robbed her of. I hope it never will. When it's time for me to leave we're both sorry. I always visit her last to make sure I leave in a good mood.

But the most surprising event of all happened with Ann. Ann was wheelchair-bound and receiving hospice care. About all I could do was hold her hand and talk to her quietly. She never answered anything back. In fact I'd never heard her talk to anyone.

During my sixth visit when we were holding hands, she took her other hand and started gently stroking my arm.

That's when I realized how much my visits must have meant to her. That's when I realized, deep down, that my volunteering was enormously worthwhile. That it was making a difference.

Three days later, Ann passed away. I was so grateful I'd had the opportunity to visit with her and be a meaningful part of her last days.

Every week I look forward to Thursday's visits, wondering what my ladies are going to say or do next.

Does anyone else out there volunteer to visit residents in a memory care or skilled nursing facility? If not and if you have a couple of hours to spare each week, consider doing it. You won't be sorry.

Note: I have changed the names of the ladies to protect their privacy.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website, has a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.