Common ground

Jim is a 39-year-old former construction worker with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Since his dementia prevents him from working, he and his wife, Michelle, have been surviving on faith, prayer and the kindness of others. They also are speaking to Memory Bridge groups at high schools around the area, sharing their experiences and their hope with the students.

At Senn High School, they address a remarkably international group of students. There is only one girl who identifies herself as “American” (with a giggle – she’s the minority) when asked her nationality. The others come from Pakistan, Bosnia, Viet Nam, Mexico, Sudan, Ghana, Honduras, and the Philippines. They have volunteered for Memory Bridge, they tell Michelle, to help people and to learn about Alzheimer’s.

But these kids, perhaps more than any other Memory Bridge group, already know what life is like for their buddies.

“Have you ever been lost?” Michelle asks the class. The kids giggle and nod. Living in a big city, in a new country, surrounded by a language that is not their native tongue – of course they have been lost. “That’s what if feels like for Jim,” Michelle explains.

She talks about how people treat you differently when you can’t communicate or can’t find the right word for something. The students nod in understanding. English is the native language for only one of them; they know what she means.

“Have any of you had any experience with poverty?” Michelle asks. “Do you know what it’s like to do without?” Now the kids shift uncomfortably in their seats, and as Michelle looks around the “global village” of the classroom, her face registers dawning awareness: these kids know what she’s talking about. Of course they do.

Dementia is a strange new world.

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