5.1 Senior Home in Kuchl
On December 14, 2011, we drove to a nursing home in Kuchl. This visit was made possible by Dr. Helga Schloffer, with whom we had the workshop “Understanding Dementia” a few days earlier. In addition to her other responsibilities, Dr. Schloffer is also a consultant for the residents and staff at the nursing home in Kuchl. In her work as a Gerontologist, she works intensively with Alzheimer’s patients and is a real expert. Through her efforts, we also got the chance to spend an afternoon with the residents of the senior citizens’ home, where we were able to learn about the everyday life of the patients and the caregivers.
To start off the visit, a group of carolers from our school sang some Christmas songs, which helped to make the atmosphere relaxed and gave it a pre-Christmas spirit. The Ursprunger Carolers had some old tunes in their repertoire, which gave us the perfect topic to later strike up a conversation. The nursing home residents recognized the songs and happily sang along. Some told us later that they had sung the songs themselves in the past. In spite of the pre-Christmas spirit, we also of course had to keep our focus on the task at hand: we should try to approach residents naturally without knowing whether they suffered from dementia. In a debriefing sessionlater, we analyzed and discussed our findings.
At last, we could put our knowledge of dealing with people with dementia into practice – an exciting challenge. The first hurdle was figuring out how to best approach people. How should we approach them if we want to have a long talk with them? As mentioned, the Ursprung Carolers had already given us a good conversation topic. We were well received and the residents were happy to have the opportunity to chat with the younger generation. Some residents told stories with such attention to detail that we felt like we had actually lived through it.
For example, one woman told us about her time as a tailor’s apprentice when she was a young girl. One winter day, there was an ice storm and she had to go into town for work. In order to get from her house into town, she had to take a two-kilometer detour, because she couldn’t cross the river. She arrived, completely frozen, at the tailor shop and was punished for being late. It was certainly a different time, also reflected in the wages, because the parents had to pay for such an apprenticeship and not the employers. It was immediately clear that this lady did not suffer from dementia, because her stories were so detailed and she spoke with such enthusiasm.
Another lady looked a little bit different. She busied herself with her small stuffed dog, “Rolfi.” A caretaker told us that this stuffed dog was a constant companion that she took for a real dog. We were told that she had previously had a real dog named Rolfi that had been very important to her. While we talked with her, she enthusiastically told us stories about her dog, and she seemed very happy.
In another example, a fellow classmate, Peter, spoke with a man, who was more than 90 years old. The conversation was quite interesting, but also a little difficult, because the man had difficulty seeing and hearing, so Peter had to speak very loudly to him. Mr. S. told again and again of his younger days as an athlete. Although the conversation was sometimes quite confusing, Peter could still gather from the stories that Herr S. had been an accomplished, competitive athlete. Sports had always been his hobby, but journalism was his profession. Many questions remained unanswered, because Herr S. usually decided himself what he wanted to talk about. He told his stories very eloquently and with a lot of humor. Among other things, he said, for example, that it was due to the many hours of training for competitive sports that he hadn’t had time for women. As he pointed to a young nurse, he commented, that he was an old man now who had always been able to keep up with the young ladies. Now he “crawls after them,” but has to “leave the field open for the younger men.”
Are Mr. S.’s inattentiveness to Peter’s questions and confusing statements due to the fact that he is hard of hearing or could it be that he is experiencing the beginning stages of dementia?
While most of us conversed with the residents, something quite strange happened to our photographer, Eva Schitter. A very spirited old woman wanted to snatch her camera. She pulled at the neck strap and wouldn’t let go. Naturally, Eva was quite perplexed and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t simply push the old woman away nor could she let her have the camera. Finally, a nurse rushed to help and joined forces to loosen the woman’s grip. When the old lady understood that she wouldn’t be photographed if she didn’t want to be, she calmed down.
Our afternoon in the nursing home was very informative, interesting and also funny. We were overwhelmed by the experience. It was great to converse with people from the older generation and to hear their opinions about the world today. It was very interesting to get to know the elderly, who all had very different personalities. For a few of them, our visit was too much commotion; but most of the residents were happy that we came. With regard to our task, we discovered: If you engage with someone for a while, it is easy to tell from which stage of Alzheimer’s disease they are suffering. We certainly feel that we have grown from this experience and will carrythis learning experience with us for the rest of our lives.
We would like to thank the nurses at the nursing home in Kuchl. We are truly thankful for being included and for the nice event. A big thanks also goes to Dr. Schloffer, who made this visit possible.
5.2 The University Clinic for Geriatrics
At the beginning of our visit to the Christian Doppler Clinic, we received a small introduction to the everyday life of the caregivers and were allowed to ask questions about Alzheimer’s disease. Our contacts were Bernhard Igelseder, Ph.D., Andreas Kaiser, MA, Renate Gusner-Pfieffer, MA, and a team of nurses in the geriatric ward.
After introductions, we divided into four groups. The first group had the task of speaking with male patients; the second group spoke with female patients. The two other groups received an explanation of the tests that are used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.
The wing for the female patients was on the top floor of the clinic. On the way, Dr. Igelseder and a nurse told us that the clinic tries to maintain the same caretakers for the patients, because they often have difficulty with change. Then we overheard a conversation between a caretaker and an older lady in a wheelchair. The elderly lady said: “I have to go home! My son needs me! He’s picking me up right now!” Later, we learned that the son lives abroad.
Together with this woman, we went into a large adjoining room, where we met three other women sitting in chairs in a circle. With the help of the nurse, we talked with the woman in the wheelchair about her past. In the course of our conversation, we reminded the elderly patient in the wheelchair about her job as a child caregiver, which seemed to make her forget about the matter with her son. Nearly in tears, she told of us of this time and about the joy that caring for children gave her.
Another old lady in the circle was delighted to tell us that her son had the difficult job of a judge. It occurred to us that the ladies often told their stories independently of one another and without continuing the topic of discussion. As soon as the conversation became too out of control, the nurse effortlessly brought order to the conversation by asking the group a new question.
Lastly, the nurse in the women’s circle asked what wisdom they could give to us students. Without hesitating, one lady said: “Don’t love the same man, that is not good. There is only conflict. Don’t love the same man!” After 20 minutes of conversation, we said goodbye. One of the women wished us well for the future and asked us: “Are you going to come to visit us again? I had a great time with you!”
Outside, we discussed the new experiences. We expressed our admiration for the subtlety and skill of the caregivers. She explained to us that each women’s circle elects a “Leader,” who is usually a very talkative and dominant woman. The “Leader” opens and closes the conversation sessions. Nevertheless, it is still necessary for the caregivers to be involved in the conversation and always ask new questions. The ladies are not in the position to be able to maintain the conversation alone.
The male patients were in the adjacent wing of the clinic. Here, we met Mr. G, who told us a lot about his youth, which is why we thought him to be “healthy” at first. He talked to us about his work life, his family and his hobbies. However, after five minutes, his attention waned and he insisted on leaving the room. After a time, he began to scold us for lying and accused us of stealing his snuff. Finally, he ranted about the general dishonesty of the youth today. The doctors told us that we shouldn’t take the accusations of Mr. G personally and that this was not an unusual occurrence. This made us feel a little bit better. Another man from the group made us smile a little bit, because he thought he was in the pub with all of the new faces he was seeing.
Renate Gusner-Pfeiffer and Andreas Kaiser explained to us the exact sequence of the Alzheimer’s test process. They gave us the test questions and told us which bizarre answers a person suffering from dementia would give. We were told that a sick person would sometimes forget the season and would not be able to recognize even the simplest images. As young people, this brought us to the brink of our imaginations.
Our afternoon in the Christian Doppler Clinic was very informative and revealing. We would especially like to thank Dr. Igelseder and his team for arranging this visit and the amazing insight into the world of geriatrics that it provided.