Aug 14, 2011


“Jim and I are getting outta here”

By Ellen Belk

“Hey there Jim, my friend” I smiled as I extended my hand. Jim’s large Texas-sized hand grasped mine as his face lit up in a toothy grin. “Well howdy!” he replied.

Each time Jim greeted me the next phrase was the same. “Woo Wee, you’re a tall one. Nearly as tall as me.” He smiled as he raised his hand in a mock-measure of my height.

This greeting was familiar to me. It was word-for-word the same greeting I’ve shared with Jim for the nearly three years I’ve known him. Although I remember and cherish this greeting – It’s always new to Jim.

Subscribe to the Alzheimer's Reading Room

Jim has Alzheimer’s disease.

I met both Jim and his wife Annie nearly three years ago. They were living in the Houston area, in a Memory Care unit that is part of my territory as a Divisional Director of Memory Care.

Jim stands nearly 6 foot 3 inches tall and Annie was barely 5 foot. They’d raised two boys, who were now adult men with lives of their own. The very first day I met big Jim, he wasn’t having a good day. He was agitated that his son had left him in this “strange place” and taken his car keys.

Like many others before him, in my world – he wanted to “get outta here.” And, I didn’t blame him. Jim had been in the military, traveled the world, married his teenage sweetheart and been a successful farmer until both he and his wife’s dementia had progressed to the point where a secure environment was necessary. And, that’s when they came into my world.

On that first day we met the staff was a bit stressed out because Jim had been searching for a way out for a couple of days. And, much to their surprise when Jim announced to me that he wanted to “get outta here” I replied, “Well, then let’s get going. I’ll help you get outta here.” There was an audible gasp as I took Jim by the hand and escorted him towards the door.

I looked back over my shoulder at the two frontline staff members staring wide eyed. “Jim and I are getting outta here” I announced with a wink and an encouraging smile. “Its okay” I whispered for their ears only. And, with that – Jim and I went out the door into the Texas sun.

Jim was used to being outdoors for much of his day, working the family farm. Jim was a strong free spirit. I related to him instantly. As we walked, he shared his anger about how his son had “dumped” him here and taken his car keys. He was convinced that same son was stealing from him and spending all his money. I nodded my head and showed empathy as I asked him to “tell me more.”

He shared and I listened. It was only when I commented on a colorful Texas plant that his anger subsided and he began telling me about the plant and how it grows. He pulled a seed from one of the bulbs and handed it to me. He told me to take it home and plant it, and explained how to care for it as it grew.

A few minutes later, Jim and I walked back into the Memory Care unit and the staff was amazed at his new outlook. I reminded them (once again) that it’s advisable to give the resident a change of scenery – when they are exhibiting exit-seeking behavior. Just getting them out of doors or into the lobby while changing the subject typically has an immediate impact on their fixation-to-flee. And, be prepared to have to do this same routine a few times a day.

Too often, I overhear staff coaxing the resident away from the door or instructing them to sit down. Or, frequently staff tries to change the subject when the resident is insistent on leaving. I consistently coach and teach staff to stop their task-oriented ways (just for a minute) and give the resident a change of scenery. Give the resident their time and attention. Listen intently. Let the resident share what’s on their mind. Don’t judge. Be a friend.

About a year after I met Jim and his wife Annie, she was admitted to a nearby nursing home. In the first few weeks, Jim was anxious and exit-seeking again. Without Annie his fragile world was even more confusing. The nursing home was only a couple of blocks away and the Dementia unit Director would walk with Jim, so he could visit his dear Annie. The outdoor walk was good for him. Seeing his beloved was even better.

After a couple of months, Annie lost her battle and passed away. Jim and the Director had made a visit, just the day before.

One afternoon, I get a phone call from the Director. Jim and Annie’s sons were “at odds” about whether Jim should make the road trip to the funeral in a town over five hours away. The one son insisted that taking Jim by car on the five hour journey followed by three days of funeral logistics was something “Dad should do.”

My heart ached instantly. Jim was my friend and as his advocate I felt it un-wise that he make that trip which had a higher potential of being frightening, confusing and exhausting for him. Neither myself nor the Director had ever met the long-distance son who was unrelenting on these funeral arrangements.

The other son, who lived locally and frequently visited, was the one who didn’t think it wise that Dad make the trip. I advised my Director to explain to the sons what the potential risks and downfalls a trip like this could have on Jim. The long drive could be challenging followed by three days of sleeping in a hotel, a non-secured environment. The sons were told that this could be problematic to them. Unfortunately, after a long wait, my Director called me back and shared with me that the battle was over – Jim would make the trip.

Those were three very long days. I even sent out an e-mail to all my friends, asking for their prayers-of-support for my friend Jim.

Several months later, I returned to that Houston community and was grateful of the greeting I received. “Well howdy! Woo Wee, you’re a tall one. Nearly as tall as me.” Jim grinned, as he reached out that familiar Texas sized hand.

We took a walk outside and he showed me the amazing garden he and the Director had planted. My heart swelled as he pointed out the okra, green beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. He pulled a few tomatoes off the vine and suggested we bring them indoors so they could “ripen up on the window sill.”

I smiled, it was good to see my friend Jim.

Ellen Belk is Divsional Director of Life Guidance (memory support) at Atria Senior Living Group. Ellen's career journey began as a broadcast journalist, prior to her entry into the Senior Living Industry. By 2005, Belk had emerged as a recognized program and business development professional, specializing in Alzheimer's and Dementia. Her talents for creating and coordinating unique programs combined with staff education and mentoring are her key contributions to the industry. Ellen also writes at They Don't Remember.

More Insight and Advice for Caregivers

Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room