Ellen B. Denton
I always knew from a very young age the importance of work in breeding confidence, dignity, independence, and even personal sanity, but I never realized just how much it influenced ones mental condition until I saw its effect on someone with severe Alzheimer’s.
When I brought my father, who was in his eighties, to California from New York to place him in an assisted living facility here where I could be close to home, he was in the advancing stages of the kind of dementia often seen in people getting on in years. He had declined beyond the abilities of the caretaker he had in New York to tend to him, as he was becoming more and more aggressive in his behavior, and while he may have been of diminishing mental capacity, even in his eighties he was a big man and could still pack quite a wallop.
He was in fact in quite bad shape mentally. I had him in my home for several days while sorting out the assisted living facility arrangements and I doubt either my husband or me slept more than an hour or two during that time. He needed to be watched constantly. He would attempt to leave the house and walk out into the middle of the street, or turn all the burners of the stove on to maximum flame and walk away, and when he wasn’t doing something that could either get himself or us killed, or being threateningly aggressive, he might stand in the middle of a room talking to imaginary people in the ceiling and walls in very earnest conversation, or else just sit there looking dazed. Dangerous items like knives or expensive, breakable items like laptop computers all had to be secured where he could get to them.
During this time something amazing happened. He was sitting in our family room muttering and reaching out to someone or something in the space in front of him. I came into the room awkwardly carrying a big bunch of files and other paraphernalia from my home office so that I could keep an eye on him while I worked. I ended up dropping most of what I was carrying, scattering papers and other items across the floor. As if waking up from a dream, my father suddenly looked and acted just the way he did before the dementia had set in. His eyes cleared and he hurried to help my pick everything up, while we engaged normal conversation. It was like he had momentarily been able to pull out of the mental muck he was so deeply sunk in and acted like his old self.
For the remainder of the time he was at the house, I was often able to bring this state back by putting my hand firmly on his shoulder and saying “Dad, I need your help” and giving him some simple tasks to do. His eyesight was not very good, so I had to find things that didn’t require keen vision such as folding towels and that kind of thing. Simple work enabled this poor, lost man, however briefly, to recover something he had lost so long ago. Instead of being sunk into the bleak depths of his own failing mind, he was able to reach out into the environment and do something useful, as he had for most of his life, being always an excellent and hardworking provider for his family.
In doing some research on Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the “management” of it, once someone has already had the condition, seemed to be all about pouring things INTO and AT the person; drugs of limited and dubious results, “Physiological” therapies of limited and dubious result, or just plain “caretaking”. Why not just some simple work? With severe mental conditions, a person usually has attention focused sickeningly inward, so why not focus their attention outward onto the environment and onto doing something useful and productive for themselves and others? It fits people in general as well. When someone can’t or won’t work, there’s no real constructive and creative reach out into the environment and a person tends to shrink down into themselves more and more. Is there anyone who can’t say they don’t feel a lot better about themselves when they’re doing something of value for themselves and other?
If even someone in my father’s condition could rise above it to do something constructive, and if simple work could bring a person in my father’s condition into a better state, imagine what it could do and is doing for “normal” folk like us!
About Ellen ...
The incident that was Ellen’s inspiration for her essay took place several years ago while she was caring for her father. As a former owner of a personnel agency she has had extensive experience with workplace issues and could have drawn from a wealth of both employer and employee stories about the importance of work. When she read about the Words about Work! contest, this poignant story was the most heartfelt and perfectly illustrated the power of work on the human spirit. Ellen has written copy for greeting card companies and lives with her husband in CA.