Why I Volunteer To Visit People With Alzheimer's

Everyone wants to be needed. We all want to feel we're making a difference in someone else's life. We could even say 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 from these ladies than I could ever give them. If someone had told me that, I wouldn't have believed it. I was only doing it to help others, not to gain some benefit for myself. Well, how wrong I was!

It really hit me one afternoon, when I returned home from my weekly visit with Ruth. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy). I know I shouldn't have a favorite, but I do. Ruth is my favorite.

She was quite confused that day. 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 See's candy here. Do you want a piece?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "Will you have a piece with me?"

"Of course," I answered. "Gimme that box!"

After eating more pieces than I can say without embarrassing myself, I told her to save me some for the 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. Among other things, 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 pouty 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 would be returning to visit her. 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 friend," she said.

"I love coming to see you," I said.

Then I stood back and looked at her. Her eyes were brimming 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.

Ruth has taught me so much. She has taught me that being cheerful - as she almost always is - is the best approach to life. She has taught me that one can be happy, even when living with Alzheimer's. She has taught me I have value and I can truly help others.

And not only that, we hug at the end of each visit. That's good for her and equally important for me. No one else gives me such loving hugs on a regular basis.

Ruth and I both benefit from my visits. I urge everyone to try visiting someone with Alzheimer's. You may just add joy to your life and help another person who really needs it.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of "Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy" and co-author (with Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of "Finding Joy in Alzheimer's: New Hope for Caregivers." Her website, ComeBackEarlyToday.com, contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.