MILWAUKEE — I lacked any "real" clinical medical skills the summer before medical school, interning as an arts program coordinator at the Aurora Adult Day Center, a place for people with age-related disabilities.
So instead, I applied what tools I did have – my eyes and my ears. What I heard were firsthand stories of what, until then, I had only read in the history books or heard about in lecture. But though I learned about the lives of my friends, I often did not know a name for many of their medical illnesses. As I listened to and witnessed the desires and challenges of aging, the two most common heart conditions I diagnosed were joy or loneliness.
One of the highlights of the summer was our "Senior Pictures" day. A simple play on words became a much anticipated event in the center. Several clients who normally came dressed for comfort even showed up on picture day wearing their "Sunday Best." Some of my photos were recently displayed at the University of Wisconsin Health Sciences Art Show, telling the story of the lives at the Day Center. While singing in Gospel choir, cooking Southern favorites, and reading the poetry of Maya Angelou give the clients chances to share their stories with one another, the Senior Pictures gave the chance for those stories to be heard by everyone. The final chapter of the story was not Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or stroke. The patient's lives and stories dove far deeper. These stories were about renewed meaning, well-deserved dignity, and the healing power of community.
One of the challenges of the work was developing activities that reached everyone, meaning people with Alzheimer's, cerebral palsy, stroke, or consequences of drug addiction. I began to realize the vastly different needs of someone who can hardly move, someone who can hardly talk, and someone who can hardly remember.
I also began to realize the impact of the tremendous age range between the clients. Our oldest, 96 years old and still quite capable, was quick to refuse to do activities simply because she was "too old." One of our youngest, in her late 40s, at first didn't think that she could be a part of some events because we had titled them "Senior Prom" and "Senior Pictures."
We used the tangible power of drumming as one means of uniting all the people of the Day Center. A room full of teenagers could not have had more energy than our Day Center that morning. All but four of the nearly forty people present that day took part, although one man in particular comes to mind. Ordinarily hardly able to move his hands due to cerebral palsy, he somehow managed to find a way to play the tambourine – and light up the room with his toothless grin, too!
For me, there was something special about the human connections made over the summer. Dozens of CHIP interns do valuable data entry and database analysis for great organizations as part of their summer work. However, I can say that the opportunity to take part in the lives of real people, with real diseases (but also with real hope) has been a real life-changing experience for me. While I wasn't able to take time to quantitatively measure the size of the smiles on the clients', their joy and perseverance have made a measurable impact on one future doctor.
The day center community is summed up well in the words of one of the clients, "Before coming here, I didn't have any reason to get up in the morning. But now, I'm no longer a burden. People here miss me if I'm gone a day. I'm part of a family."
Community. One of our biggest purposes was to provide meaningful interaction, renewed purpose, and daily support.
Music. A pill may dull the pains of aging, but only music can move an arthritic woman to temporarily forget her pain, step out of her wheelchair and dance to her favorite songs.
Faith. When nearly everything in their lives had been lost, many of the people drew strength from their spiritual roots.
Honesty. You can go far by showing genuine compassion and the ability to listen. People can sense your motivation. It’s easy to develop new programs when there are bonds of trust.