When people ask what I do and I say that, well, one of the things that I do is work with an organization that bridges people to people with dementia, this question occasionally follows: “How do you do that?”
It’s a good question. And I’m never sure how to answer it. If you cut right to the heart of the matter, it complicates the conversation. Here’s the heart of the matter as I understand it after 16 years of being a part of Memory Bridge’s work.
What bridges people with and without dementia to each other is the spirit.
Some people will understand that spirit as the Holy Spirit. Some people will not relate to that term, often because it sounds too religious to them. I have no investment, and Memory Bridge certainly has no investment, in defining realities that transcend the human ego’s everyday consciousness. Indeed, a fundamental commitment of Memory Bridge’s mission is to invite people into community without dictating the terms of the communion, especially with respect to vocabularies, symbols, and the metaphors with which we communicate the borderline incommunicable. We offer one central metaphor, a Bridge, and several allied metaphorical expressions—Letting Go, Letting In, and Letting Be, for example—but other than those imagistic ideas to jumpstart the conversation, Memory Bridge is better understood as a space of potentiality and not as a philosophy or method that participants in Memory Bridge-hosted learning experiences are expected to adopt.
Another way of expressing the curious kind of organization that Memory Bridge is was suggested to me by Ted Kay, the director of our first documentary, There Is a Bridge. One day, as we were trying to articulate the vision of the film, Ted said to me: “You know, Memory Bridge is the uncola of colas.” If you’re older than 50, Ted’s comment will probably mean something to you. For those who aren’t ripe enough yet for precivilization commercial lingo, Ted was suggesting that Memory Bridge doesn’t teach a method. Instead, it brings people together to discover what they have to learn. Specifically, what they have to learn from each other. And, even more specifically, what they have to learn from each other about communicating.
I think Ted’s way of making sense of Memory Bridge is pretty much spot on. It is an uncola in its field of mission. There may be other uncolas in this field, of course—so this is not a way of one-upping any other organization’s work. (I almost said 7-upping them.) I like the term because I think it works perfectly for how I understand the spirit, which is to say how I understand what, in my experience, bridges people to each other in ways that defy total comprehension.
If we totally understood the spirit, it would be something we could manipulate, as we only completely understand those things that we can make. And my best guess is that with respect to the spirit, if we can say there is any kind of making going on, the direction of the making is the opposite: the spirit leads the making. Again, this is my understanding of how people with and without dementia are bridged as I’ve experienced the bridging—both directly and as a listener to others’ personal experiences.
In so many different ways, people who have been in intimate company with a person with dementia have said to me, or to one of the groups of learners of which I have been a member: “I could feel a connection.” Or: “There was a connection there. I could feel it.” In the instances I have in mind, the person with dementia was believed to be beyond communication. Often, they were described as nonverbal. In none of these instances could the person with dementia speak “normally.”
What makes these testimonies so moving to me is experiencing the way they are shared. You can feel a spirit in the way the experiences themselves are communicated. It is as if the person with dementia is seeking to connect, through the person sharing the story, with other people too. It is as if the person with dementia is teaching us how little we actually understand about what the limits of communication are. It is as if the very word “nonverbal” speaks to how little we are able to verbalize what can happen between two or more people when they come together with no desire other than to be in each other’s company lovingly. It is as if—and I say this gently and speaking principally of myself—we really ought to be sensitive to how precious little we actually understand about what it means “to have dementia.”
I guess you can see what I mean when I say that I am never sure how to answer people when they ask me how one bridges people to people with dementia. I suppose one actually doesn’t. It apparently takes two at least: a person with dementia and a person without dementia. And I’m comfortable going on record as saying it takes three: a person with dementia, a person without dementia, and a spirit—holy or otherwise—that moves between them like a form of life that death will never understand.
– Michael Verde
Founder of Memory Bridge