I usually don’t write about my work at the library because a good number of solid personal reasons, but something happened today that really shook me. One portion of my job is computer instruction; I teach all of the computer classes at my branch plus I offer one-on-one sessions by appointment. The latter are for subjects that I don’t teach in the classroom setting since they don’t generate enough interest to warrant reserving the computer lab. Plus it also gives me a chance to provide additional individual attention to someone who needs a little extra time or care. Personally, I think it’s great outreach, advocacy, and instruction all rolled into one, but that’s beside the point of this post.
Today I had a situation in a one-on-one that I’ve never experienced before and, quite frankly, it put a damper on my mood for the rest of the afternoon. It was with an older gentlemen to whom I have taught computer basics. In my relatively short tenure, I’ve encountered people who were reluctant, hesitant, and downright fearful about using the computer. I try to soothe their concerns, addresses their needs, and get them to see the computer as something that can be used by anyone.
But today was different. About halfway through our time, he stopped me and told me that he didn’t want to go on. His memory, he went on, was not there anymore. He understood what I was saying, but he wasn’t remembering it. Furthermore, he could feel himself not retaining it. He was frustrated, a hint of angry, and an underlying feeling of disappointment. With that, he didn’t want to go on with the lesson and he wanted to let go of the idea of using the computer.
It was hard thing to hear. Having experienced life with two grandmothers who had dementia who ability to retain short term memories were all but shot, my heart went out to him. I have seen the face of frustration by someone who is desperately trying to remember what happened moments ago or realizing they have asked the same question multiple times over a short time period. I’ve seen the anger that can unfold when the person knows there is a connection to be made but can’t seem to find the right words, terms, or concept. It’s the ultimate mind betrayal.
On the other hand, as we started, he had demonstrated that he remembered some of what I taught him in the previous lesson. In going over the basics again, he was readily picking up on what I was saying and doing. It was my own frustration this time in knowing that he had remembered some things, but he was either not realizing it or putting it down as insufficient. It might not have been rushing forth, but it was there.
In that ensuing conversation that lasted but a few minutes as we wrapped things up, I felt the walls break down. Here was another human being, a bit scared, looking to indulge his interests but his brain wasn’t there for him. We talked about our family histories (he has relatives who had or have the same kinds of memory issues) and about how the brain works in terms of memory, reasoning, and emotion. I wasn’t the librarian anymore, but someone there trying to make him feel better, encouraging him to talk to a doctor about how he felt, and what was important in life (his family). But, even for all those consoling words, I felt very helpless in that moment. I couldn’t offer or provide a solution.
In the end, he walked away. I left the door open to him and reminded him it was not a waste of my time but my job to be there for people who need help just like him. I hope he comes back. I don’t want to give up.