Scene Missing

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.

11 thoughts on “Scene Missing

  1. Andy, I totally understand where you’re coming from with your feelings on this. I have had this happen with patrons and with two staff members – one of whom I supervised (and took early retirement) and one of whom I had to evaluate even though I wasn’t her supervisor (and who was demoted). It’s not easy to see it happen to others and for me at least, strengthens the fear of it happening to me. So let’s keep up those brain exercises and hope something like a runaway bus full of beautiful emo boys kills us before our minds go.

    • My grandmothers had dementia, but both my grandfathers were sharp as a tack till the day they died. So, there’s hope for me but I know it goes through my parent’s mind all the time. If not, then yes, the bus.

    • Thank you, Kate. I know what dementia looks like up close and he doesn’t have it (not that I’m a doctor, but I do have some experience here). But, yes, the connection between learning and memory wasn’t happening. I hope he looks into his options so as to find something that will give him an answer, even if it’s not a good one.

      Part of me was reminded of times early on when I was learning to dance and I’d hit a learning wall; I just couldn’t add incorporate anything new at a certain point. Over time, I’ve expanded my ability to memorize steps but it took lots of time and practice.

  2. I had a patron for whom this was also a problem after his stroke. He brought in a mini tape recorder and recorded our sessions so he could listen to it again and again. He found it very helpful. Of course you have to talk very specifically about things : “at the top right of the screen there is an X, use the mouse and put the arrow over it to close the program.” Etc.

    He did come back again and again and we taped many a tutorial for him.

  3. I haven’t had this specific experience, but recognize this type of scenarios with family members,so I feel heartwrenching empathy. And, in my previous library, we had at least two individuals with serious dementia who would “escape” from their home and come to basically stand in the library. The staff were unbelievably tender with these men and figured out how to contact their wives (who were understandably agitated).
    When we work with the public, we have people with dementia, mental issues, those who are impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who are depressed, those who are sad, those who are mad. I once had a woman who was clinically depressed and whose therapist told her to come to a library and get a self-help book (or so she said). Every single danged book I recommend, she rejected (no surprise there).
    But, dementia is, to me, can be the saddest. Some of what we may say will be retained; some may not. We can try to make accommodations (like recording), but they know (at least at some point) that eventually that won’t work.

  4. I was teaching seniors to use computers a few years ago and one of mine dropped out because she had RSI. Same series of reactions. Talked to her about setting up the puter and work space ergonomically and why I bring up these issues in every class but she said it really wasn’t going to work. She was very frustrated. We spent a little while comparing stories (my sister has disabling RSI) with me just being supportive and consoling. She left, I reminded her if she changed her mind she could come back and we’d look at ergonomics again. I didn’t see her again.

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