This morning I am looking at the list of things I’ve promised myself to be writing about before the holidays end, and I decide to begin with publishing this one about the Lessons from Sunlove Home I have taken away thus far. With every place that I have stepped into, I go in with a purpose and the spontaneous occurrences that happen by chance giving me lessons to takeaway naturally follow from there. And so for this post, I’d like to start with a story, the story about my purpose in entering the home.
At this time last year, I had stopped teaching at a student care centre and started teaching at Ulu Pandan Study Centre, and in that time I was clearly comfortable being around and working with children anywhere aged 7-14. My relatively more extensive involvement with children compared to any other group in society was one that gave me incredible insight about the group– their habits, the way they think, talk, behave, and how they prefer to be treated, how to interact with them and how they learn best. I’ll have to emphasize that I’m no expert, and I say this in comparison to my experiences with other beneficiaries, so all these descriptions are relative. And this was where I enjoyed the liberty of having powerful influence on children because of the understanding that I had learned about from experience. In service, we are often concerned about ‘meeting the needs of the community we serve’, and so this liberty was more than satisfactory, it was fulfilling. Inspiring me to take courage in facing the fears and reservations I once had about working with the mentally disabled and the elderly– and this is why, Sunlove Home.
Sunlove Home is a charitable Home for the intellectually-disabled, that shelters, protects and cares for those entrusted to them. Amongst the beneficiaries, the ones that Interactors who have chosen this Service Centre serve are the Dementia Daycare patients who spend their weekday mornings under the care of the supervisors and nurses at the centre– all of whom I have an immense amount of respect for. And so with the purpose of learning to be around and trying to understand these elderly with dementia, I chose for Sunlove Home to be my Interact Service Centre and the lessons begin from here:
First, I have a changed perception of the elderly. Because of the way they move (slowly), the way they speak (in dialect) or the way they look (so different from us) as a result of age, I have once subconsciously felt that there was a vast difference between myself and any elderly, including my grandparents. There seemed to be a barrier– not just a communication barrier, but one of beliefs, culture, practices and thoughts. This manifested into my inability to engage because I just couldn’t think of what to be talking about, what to ask or say, how to even be in a conversation with any elderly. What Sunlove Home has shown me, in the conversations I have learned to share or those I have watched supervisors engage the elderly in is that they are almost no different– in fact, we share so much more similarities than differences, contrary to what I have ever imagined. Similar to our generation, they have passion, they have things that make them incredibly excited; they have people that they love, those who can break their hearts or build them up with casual words; they have memories, so countless, if you get started on reminiscing with an elderly, they may never stop. In fact, in the conversations I have learned to listen attentively to and enjoy the engagement in, I have begun to see every elderly as a symbol in society– they are symbols of struggle, determination and perseverance. When you listen to their troubles when they were our age, when you listen to the obstacles they had to work through and the odd jobs they had to undertake; I guess you can’t help but respect what they have been through.
Second, it has taught me to listen wholeheartedly. In my belief that service is made precious by the little things we do genuinely for our beneficiaries, listening has been a skill that is difficult to master and I’ve found it especially a challenge in working with the Sunlove Home elderly. As dementia patients, they repeat. There is a tendency to repeat not just recollection of memories, punchlines and statements; but a tendency to repeat whole conversations. On some days I find myself sitting beside an elderly for a whole hour, just repeating the exact same conversation over and over and this has taught me to listen. I have somewhat concluded in my head that one things that elderlies really want is the company granted to them– someone who holds their hand and sits beside them, looks at them and responds to what they share about. I have found this incredibly difficult, almost increasingly difficult for there is the temptation to pretend to listen and get distracted as their stories drag on. But there is a beauty in being in a conversation where you are completely focused and fully aware, thinking about what they say. You know, they can tell. And so this is a lesson learned, and one that I’m still learning.
And third, I have learned of the treasure of memory. In the times when the dementia elderly recollect their memories as if they were the present, you realise these recounts aren’t exactly of the most dramatic and gargantuan of things. Sometimes, they are the tiniest of actions and smallest of occurrences. Once, I had an elderly tell me about how she got to be friends with a stranger in an office she once worked as a cleaner in. It was magical because as I was listening, I could almost feel her affection, her love and how much she adored this lady she came to be friends with after a very small crossing of paths because they had accidentally bumped into each other once. It was powerful that a small bumping into a stranger could be magically turned into a friendship that a dementia elderly remembers details of to today. And this appears to reinforce my idea of the power of crossing paths, that every little things you do with anyone whom you cross paths with may be part of a bigger, more important memory that will come to be created if we learn to live out these little moments carefully and consciously.
So there, the three biggest lessons I have taken away from my weekly service at this place I would have said to fear a good 13-15 months ago.