We’re accustomed to a rigid morning routine at the assisted living center where I volunteer, performing various stimulating activities at thirty-minute intervals. At 10:00 AM, we do puzzles. At 10:30, we have refreshments. At 11:00, we do indoor bowling. At 11:30, trivia. And at 12:00 we have lunch. Every day it’s almost the same thing, and it’s not as if the residents are bored with the activities. In fact, it’s just the opposite: they love them. It’s just that we’re not really challenging them to try something new. But yesterday, we did something a little different.
One of the resident’s children had left an inflatable beach ball to the give the place a more summery feel. Yet, in spite of its bright colors and buoyancy, the wonderful sphere hadn’t been tossed about in quite some time. Seeking to finally do the beach ball justice, Anita, my supervisor, spontaneously suggested that I engage in a game of ball-toss with the residents.
Ball toss? But we have bowling scheduled right now. I thought sluggishly. “Alright,” I finally replied, taking the beach ball from her hands.
This wasn’t the first time I’d lead an activity with the residents, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. Because of dementia’s degeneration of motor control and spatial awareness, more than half of them were confined to wheelchairs, forever lost in a daze. Some of them, like Ester, Frank, and Patrice, who were sitting directly in front of me, had lost the ability to communicate altogether. I often found them dozing in their wheelchairs, and whenever I would gently massage their backs, they would slowly open their eyes, stare straight ahead for a few moments, and go back to sleep.
Of course, there were more active residents as well. Residents like Norbert, Catherine, and Gertrude, who could walk freely, without the aid of a walker. They also had excellent motor control, capable of bowling a strike on several occasions .
So when I started the activity, I began by tossing the ball to the more active members of the community, like Norbert. His eyes widened in excitement and anticipation, as he caught it firmly and threw it back to me after a few seconds. I grinned and uttered several words of praise and encouragement each time one of the residents successfully caught the ball and returned it to me.
“Nice job, Norbert!” and “Great form, Gertrude!” and “Wow, Rachel, you’re a pro! Show me how it’s done!” Thirty minutes into the activity, I was getting tired from retrieving the balls that some of the residents would lob hard and fast at me. I even got bopped on the head on several occasions. But I was having a great time. The residents smiled wider and their eyes were shining. They sat up a little straighter in their chairs every time I approached them. Some of them even held their hands slightly out in front of them, as if expecting a surprise throw on my behalf.
When I noticed that Ester had finally woken up and was watching our activity with interest, I thought I’d give her a turn.
Now, let me tell you a little about Ester before I go on. She’s one of our quietest residents, having lost the ability to speak except for a couple of words that she rasps out with great difficulty. She’s stuck in her wheelchair, and is incapable of solving puzzles, playing dominoes, or stacking cards. Having forgotten how to feed herself, the caregivers and I use the hand-under-hand technique to prompt Ester to put food into her open mouth during meal times.
So when I threw her the ball, I really wasn’t expecting much. The brightly colored ball would land softly in her lap before I went over to retrieve it and gently massage her back. Except, that wasn’t what happened.
As the ball tumbled towards her, her hands suddenly sprung forward and grasped it with considerable force. Startled at actually having caught it, Ester widened her blue eyes incredulously at me. I did it. I did it! they seemed to say.
Surprised myself, I asked to her to throw it back to me, wondering how much she could do. After looking at my excited gestures for a couple of moments, Ester effortlessly threw the ball over to me. It was perfect.