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A Heart For Best Friends

We sit in a circle -- me and more than a dozen new friends I've just met. Linda Glawe, my sister, and I begin the conversation by talking about when we were kids on the farm. I tease her that she didn't work as hard as I did, milking cows and baling hay.

Slowly, others join in as we all become comfortable. One woman remembers a favorite dog from her youth, a dog that rounded up the cows for milking. Another woman at my side, who has never shared much before, tells how she used a stick to subdue hens as she gathered eggs. Smiles and laughter spread.

I mention a favorite Holstein, Old Snoop, that learned to open gate latches with her tongue. More laughs. We talk about how we learned, usually from our dads, to call cows and pigs, and some of us demonstrate our calling techniques. Then someone tells about squirting milk from a cow's teat into a cat's open mouth. That's still funny.

Coffee club on Main Street? No, this is group therapy at the memory unit of the Eastern Star senior care facility in Boone, Iowa, where Linda works as a nurse. Most of the people in our circle have Alzheimer's disease, and it has robbed them of big chunks of their memories. Linda and her boss, Cindy Flugstad, who is the clinical care services coordinator, plan activities such as this circle reminiscing session. It helps everyone access the old memories -- the only ones that are still intact.

After we share these stories, we sing some well-known hymns. Then we hold hands and pray.
For several weeks, Linda has been asking me to participate in this circle. She doesn't say it, but she thinks it will also be good for me, telling stories and seeing the spark of light in the eyes of people remembering long-ago chores.

Tapping Into Memory

Frankly, most of us shy away from people with dementia, fearful of where a conversation might go. But today around this circle, we're all just farm neighbors sharing memories.

After the discussion, Cindy has tears in her eyes. She's worked in this unit for five years ago. Today's emotions have touched her deeply. A couple of these Alzheimer's victims have shared something for the very first time.

"The singing and praying gets to me," she says. Like my sister, Cindy and the staff of this wing have big hearts for the special people in their care.

"You have to treat people with dementia with great respect," she says. "They may not remember like they used to, but they are good people with all the emotions of anyone else. What we did today accessed a part of their brains that maybe they hadn't accessed for a long time."

I promise Cindy I'll come back again. Who knows, maybe I'll bring along a milk cow and cat to trigger more memories of farm chores way back when.

"It's this kind of stimulation that works their brains in all areas," Cindy says. "They have to dig deep for it, and that's a good thing for them to do."

Photo above: Wendell Carlson visits with his wife, Ruth, at Eastern Star. They farmed north of Boone, Iowa.

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