DSHA seniors experienced a similar feeling a few weeks ago, embarking on a new service journey called Vocare. Vocare, the Latin word for “to draw forth” or “to call,” is the capstone of each student’s four years of service. Each student serves two full weeks in the greater Milwaukee community, serving children, elderly or those with special needs.
“Walking in, I thought, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to be doing or what I should say or anything like that,’ so it was kind of nerve-racking,” said Jane Florence, DSHA ’19, who served at Capri Communities — Gables of Germantown. “But when I was assigned there, I knew that this is what God wanted of me and where God needed me, and that it was going to be a good experience no matter what.”
In fact, it was such a good experience, neither Florence nor Ellise Little, DSHA ’19, who was also assigned to the memory care, assisting living and independent living community, wanted to return to their regular routines after two weeks.
Their new normal during their two weeks of service included playing music, leading exercises or stretches, playing cards or coloring with the residents in the morning. Their afternoons always included an activity, like Bingo or giving manicures to the ladies or painting. During the two weeks Little and Florence were serving, one of the residents celebrated her 100th birthday, and they planned a big birthday bash for her. Most importantly, they were tasked with making connections with the residents.
Meeting and connecting with residents forced the two students to slow down and think about the needs of others before the needs of their own, they said.
“I like things that are more fast-paced,” Little said. “It’s just what I’m used to. It’s definitely been difficult slowing down and keeping in mind that this is the best thing for the residents here and it really doesn’t matter what is best for me at all.”
Connecting Across Generations
In addition to learning how to slow down, there were other learning curves. Nada Rodriguez, the memory care manager at Gables of Germantown, said while it took some time for the students to learn how to interact best with the memory residents, it eventually became “second nature.”
Even sitting in silence wasn’t a bad thing, said Florence. Talking about one of the residents, Little agreed. “I think she just wants someone to hang out with her, which has been great to do. Just to hold her hand and be there. It’s really nice.”
Whether or not they sit in silence or have an opportunity to engage with residents, the students change the environment of the facility with their presence.
“It’s a little brighter for sure,” Rodriguez said. “We have fun here no matter what, but they have a different outlook on life,” she said. “They have their whole life ahead of them, and the residents love to know what they’re doing and what their life is going to look like.”
Little and Florence were able to relate their experience with the memory residents to their own lives and their own grandparents.
Little noticed the similarities between her relationship with the residents and her relationship with her grandmother. “I’m really close with my grandma. She lives with me. She is my complete rock,” Little said. “Going home, I talk with her kind of in the same way I talk to these people now, and it’s interesting. She’s always been on this pedestal for me, and now I’ve realized that she actually ages.”
Although Florence doesn’t see her grandparents on a regular basis, they are healthy, and she is grateful for their health. What struck her was the age of some of the residents. She found out that one of the residents is younger than her own parents.
“When I heard that, I was taken aback,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine having one of my parents in memory care at this point in their life and having to go and visit them. I am really thankful for God keeping our family healthy.”
Learning From Serving
Working with memory patients, both Florence and Little came face-to-face with dementia and those living with Alzheimer’s. At the memory care at Gables of Germantown, there’s a wide spectrum of Alzheimer’s residents, said Florence. Some are in great spirits, and others experience depression.
Little heard residents asking when their parents will come to see them, when many of their parents have passed on. Florence was surprised to find that, out of all the details the residents have forgotten, they still remember the lyrics to their favorite childhood songs.
“It brought me a deeper understanding of what Alzheimer’s is and helped me grow within that,” Florence said. “There’s moments where they’ll not necessarily remember everything, but then other moments where they’ll have a surplus to talk about and their whole life will start coming back to them…Alzheimer’s isn’t just forgetting everything. There’s a lot that they still remember and it just kind of comes and goes in waves.”
Rodriguez noted that the students’ experience of working with Alzheimer’s residents is going to help them in their future.
“Alzheimer’s is an epidemic, and it’s just going to get worse,” she said. “The younger generation that actually takes the time to volunteer with this older generation who unfortunately is living with dementia can still learn so much.”
Both Florence and Little have learned and grown throughout the two weeks of service. While they could have easily been placed in schools — which they thought would be an “easier” placement— during Vocare, they are grateful to have connected with the elderly.
“I think there’s a huge population that’s overlooked because it’s not new and easy,” Little said. “But everyone has a great story to tell. I learned so much about everybody here and I’m so thankful for it.”