Country Comes to the City: A ‘Cowpoke’s’ Day in a Dementia Care Center

Patrick Connole

Boundless energy. These two words come to mind when describing Chris Covell, the resident engagement manager in charge of the Life Enrichment Program at Forest Side in Washington, D.C. To witness her work, as I did during a recent all-day volunteer stint at Forest Side is to be challenged, in a good way.


Chris Covell

The challenge is to keep up with her as she progresses through a full schedule for her residents, all of whom have some form of dementia. On the day I was present, the theme was country life, as in country music, pioneer culture and the history of the American West.

Covell had created a roughly seven-hour program built to entertain, stimulate, and otherwise offer comfort and companionship for around 15 to 20 residents of the 33-resident facility.

When you walk into a volunteer situation like the one at Forest Side there is always a period of time you need to get accustomed to what are very foreign surroundings for most professionals. Usually, my day consists of working phones and the computer while anchored in front of a desk, CNN on in the background, news flowing all around. People come and go throughout the day, questions are asked and answered, and the pace of the day is pretty much self-dictated.

But when you enter the care center, the focus – all of it – is on the residents as guided. When you eat, when you break, when you assist, when you “play” and when you transport is all scheduled, based on a well-timed care plan and socialization platform meant to offer a fulfilling and interesting environment.

For this day, Covell starts with a drawing and coloring session, wherein each participating resident has a chance to create art from sheets of paper with a Western theme. As old-school country music plays on the large TV in a nearby lounge area, the residents occupy two large tables, which have been dotted by care givers with crayons, markers, glue and other arts and craft supplies.

Volunteers like myself assist one or two residents at a time in whatever they want to do within the 45 minutes or so allotted for the project.

My resident is one of the only males in the group, a former stalwart lawyer and investigator who prefers to take copious notes of the day’s activities versus actual drawing. But even as he goes his own way, there is a back and forth between and among the resident and staff, including Covell, and this volunteer. There is a quick rhythm and intensity to his actions, waking me up to the fact this is more than just regular work to care properly for residents, it seems to take supernatural patience and attention to detail.

As others create colorful art, the resident and I discuss who is doing what and where. It is during this time, around a half-hour in, that enlightenment starts to kick in. For all the writing I do on skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, the owners and operators, the nurses or the latest happenings in Congress that affect all of us, it is only at a time like this that I see what this industry is all about.

It is about sitting down and conversing with someone hampered by dementia, and doing so in a respectful, fun and patient manner. My own mind runs to the one thought I ruminate over again and again during the day: What dedication this must take to do this eight hours a day or more, everyday, because I am only in this position for less than an hour and I am exhausted.

We move on from the art to other activities and eventually lunch and an end of day ice cream social. All the time Covell is prodding residents to take part in whatever is being discussed, steering conversations to her themed subjects, prompting we volunteers to go outside of our comfort zones to assist and lead residents in for instance a pretend camp fire, complete with sing-a-longs to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers tunes from days long past.

We even build a fire with real sticks, paper cut outs for the flames. The session is led by the spirit and will of Covell and her boom box, which fills the air with the aforementioned music. It all makes sense.

I take a turn reading a historical account of what the Old West was all about. Sure, there are some residents nodding off, others offer only blank stares, but there are many engaged in their own unique way. And, despite the lack of give and take in what we call a normal way, there is a warmth that emerges, fittingly at a camp fire, as residents follow Covell’s lead and if they want, get into character by wearing fun Old West hats or playing with stuffed animals posing as our animals for the cattle drive.

For it only takes one set of eyes on you, and your eyes back, to tie yourself to the humanity of this place, this home for people afflicted with one of the most trying and devastating illnesses known to man: the loss of one’s memory and ability to live out an independent life.

It is when pretending to be a cowpoke that I understand what enormous strength it takes on the part of staff and resident alike to move through each day. And, to do so in the best way possible, to make a go of it, to be a pioneer of sorts in waging the fight for a life that is dwindling in many ways, but is lifted up to a higher plane than otherwise could be achieved through the love of families and friends, nurses, and the entire staff of caregivers.

At least for one day, one short day for this volunteer, we are cowpokes in the city.

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