"Let's make a bow. Here, I'll put my finger right there to hold the ribbon, and you tie the bow."

"Okay," she answered cautiously.

Slowly she reached for the slant-cut ends of red ribbon. Holding one between her right thumb and forefinger, the other end between her left thumb and forefinger, she stopped.

She appeared unsure of the next step. Latent muscle memory suggested to her that some time ago she could tie ribbons into bows. But she could not remember ever, actually, tying a bow. She looked at a finished product. She could not reverse-engineer the process of tying a bow (most of us could not do this either).

She watched a happy patient succeed. Her short term memory deteriorated, she could not watch a step and reproduce it.

"We're not in a hurry," I said to her.

"Thank you," she said.

Continuing to grasp the ends of the ribbon, she slowly waved her hands circularly over the spot where my finger held the ribbon in place. Perhaps she hoped the movement might trigger a recollection. It did not help. She squinted. I suggested an alternative.

"How about if you hold the ribbon, and I'll tie the bow?"

"That would be nice," she responded.

She smiled because she could help. We tied a bow together and smiled together. I wondered if I was supposed to let her try again. I looked over to the program coordinator. She smiled and nodded. The point was to enjoy being together, not relearn kindergarten.

So we worked away quite happily, and with seven other Alzheimer's patients we assembled 40 little bags of candy for a party. Each red and gold cellophane pouch held a caramel, some candy corn, and a chocolate kiss or two bound by a ribbon. We felt pride in the heap of packages in the middle of the table.

The stash would have been larger if we had not consumed our supplies. That was part of the plan, however. Our discomfiture in bow tying—she could not tie and I could not teach—dissolved as the candy melted in our mouths.

The family warned me; they thought he might be swearing. Still I wondered what his expletive meant.

The group moved to a different table. My job was to lead a "service." I'd forgotten my Bible in my car and I cannot recite the 23rd Psalm without the text in front of me, so I asked the program coordinator if they had one. She dug through some drawers and hauled out a Bible as big as a sofa. I was glad for the King James. Modern idioms and unfamiliar cadences are not good news for old people with widely spaced brain cells.

Slowly and rhythmically I read a bit of Psalm 23.

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not … " I stopped precipitously before the last word. Timidly, a few said:

"Want."

"Good job," I said. They sat a little straighter.

"He maketh me to lie down in green … "

"Pastures!" they replied triumphantly. Even my bow gal clicked into the game.

"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the … "

"Still waters!" This time they remembered two words. I still need the text before my eyes. We continued in a great triumphal procession.

"And I shall dwell … "

"In the house of the Lord, forever!" The old voices rang like bells.

I leafed through the Bible looking for other passages that might ring a bell. Some fell flat. But it surprised me how many verses they could recite with simple cues.

Slowly, softly, and tenderly I sang a few hymns, some sang along, some hummed, no one looked bored. Tears formed.

The lady who could tie bows said: "I can play the piano!"

She could not tell you her address, the year or the day she was born, but she could play old hymns by memory. What a joy that was! The more she played the more we sang. By the end we felt warmed and loved and accomplished. And we felt the Spirit of God.

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Spring 2000: Making Devoted Disciples  | Posted
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