Jun 3, 2010

Old Soldiers Never Die

... old soldiers never die; they just fade away.....
By Tom Brenner

Art by Paul Calle

I was serving my internship at a long term care facility; one of my assignments was to lead a reminiscence group for older veterans. I had absolutely no idea how to reach these men, and often felt that trying to get them to open up about their experiences was like trying to eat soup with a fork, impossible!

I tried to start conversations out of thin air, and a personal sense of my own experience in the military. I did manage to elicit some reminiscence; for example, one gentleman shared with the group his experience of being a bugler with MacArthur’s army in the Philippines.

However, for the most part, the silence was deafening. Later in my career, when I learned how to adapt the Montessori Method to our work in memory support, I realized that the most important thing you can do to start the conversational ball rolling is to put something in a person’s hand. If you know that someone is a baseball fan, you can give him a baseball to hold or a baseball mitt. Just this simple act of giving people a meaningful object to hold, can open up a treasure trove of memories.

I was working in an adult day center on Veteran’s Day, being assisted by a young man who was a doctoral candidate in psychology. When I explained to him that I was going to bring to this group of 15 veterans some small American flags to celebrate Veteran’s Day, he recoiled in horror! Wasn’t I concerned that I might bring about some trauma with a discussion of flags and military service? I assured him that if anyone became uncomfortable, we would change direction and do something else.

I handed out the small flags to each veteran seated around the table. First, the group began to wave the flags, and then, much to my surprise, one of the veterans exclaimed that there were too many stars on the flag! With that, the group began to count the stars and to name the states. I started to write down the names of the states as the group came up with them. Often, when a state was named, someone would come up with a memory about that state. So it went until the group managed to name all 50 states! This was not the experience I expected to have that day, but that’s the flexibility that’s necessary for successful engagement. It’s not what you plan that matters; you should remember that you serve as a guide in the Alzheimer’s journey.

Tom Brenner is a gerontologist and has specialized in creating and researching dementia specific training programs. Learn more about Tom at Brenner Pathways.

"Old Soldiers Never Die..."
General MacArthur's Address to Congress
April 19, 1951

I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fullfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have all since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away. And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.

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Original content Tom Brenner, the Alzheimer's Reading Room