Lydia's angels

July 1, 2012
They say it takes a village. In Lydia's case, it's true. Lydia is 91 years old, in the midstages of Alzheimer's disease, is fragile, and uses a walker to get around. She resides in an assisted living environment, the Sterling House, with 60 other residents.


They say it takes a village. In Lydia's case, it's true. Lydia is 91 years old, in the midstages of Alzheimer's disease, is fragile, and uses a walker to get around. She resides in an assisted living environment, the Sterling House, with 60 other residents. It takes a village -- all of Lydia's angels -- to oversee her care: food service workers, registered dieticians, janitorial staff, RNs, LPNs, CNAs, doctors, administrators, and family and friends, to name a few.

I first met Lydia when her attentive son, Greg, brought her to our dental office for a comprehensive evaluation and subsequent cleaning. I was encouraged and touched by Greg's initiative to care for his aging mother, but shocked at the same time when Lydia first opened her mouth. Her gum tissues were frightening. I nearly cried. This could be my grandmother. Plaque coated nearly every surface of her teeth and gums. In addition, where there was a lack of plaque, capillary breakdown amassed the marginal tissues. With one stroke of my instrument, I was sure I would need a tourniquet ... seriously.

Pain is not discriminatory, and in her case, while she was not aware of where she was, she was very aware of the pain in her mouth. Even though I was careful to remove the irritants, Lydia moaned and groaned during the procedure. It broke my heart to see her in this condition. Lydia was placed on a one-month recall, with specific instructions to her son to ask the assisted living staff to aid in her oral care.

But when I saw Lydia again, nothing had changed. I couldn't bear the thought of having Lydia come back into our office each month. Greg told me that it took nearly an hour to get her ready for the appointment, and it took Greg away from work each time he had to bring her -- not to mention her state ... fragile, somewhat unaware, and on a fixed income.

I had an idea: Go to where the need is. So, with Greg's permission, the welcome response of the assisted living administrator, and the blessings of the two wonderful dentists I work for, I went to Lydia's residence and began a weekly regimen of cleaning her teeth. It worked beautifully. I stocked my carryall with gloves, masks, mouth rinse, and oral aids. It was a perfect intersection for me, an empty nester with a little extra time on my hands crossing paths with a woman in need and who for all intents and purposes could be me in 50 years.

We meet each Friday afternoon in the comfort of Lydia's room, in the bathroom to be exact. Lydia is kind to allow me to work with her and is very responsive to having her teeth cleaned. So each Friday, this is our ritual. We talk about her younger days, life with her children and her husband, now deceased. A beautiful old picture of Lydia and her husband hangs on her wall. He is in a nice suit and she is in a lovely dress. She doesn't much resemble the picture now, but when you look into her eyes, you see the same sparkle. Between toothbrush strokes, she points to the knickknacks on her dresser, telling me where they came from and struggling to remember. And she smiles ...

I started this venture not too long ago, and my son asked me recently, almost puzzled, "Mom, why are you doing this?" I really had to think about what it was that stirred me. After all, it's not glamorous; it's not pretty -- actually, it's messy, it's volunteer work, and I've even changed an adult diaper where nature came before nurture! Aside from the important fact that it reduces the risk of pneumonia and other potential systemic responses commonly seen in the elderly community, it was Lydia's precious face that stirred me. Not only was it merely that she was human, loving, and in desperate need, but I remembered a personal experience that influenced me to do this for Lydia.

I was in the hospital for an extended stay for major lung surgery. The nurses were wonderful and they could tell I was getting a little depressed with the extended stay. I was away from family, alone and weary. A nurse came in and asked me, "Do you want a steak and a baked potato, or can we get you lamb?" I was thinking, How about chocolate, ice cream, or pie? Actually nothing could replace the notion of just feeling human. And my desperate response was, "I just want my hair washed; could someone please wash my hair?"

There is something so precious about restoring someone's dignity, whether aware or not, whether direct (through helping the patient) or indirect (assisting family members to help with their loved ones). It's about passing it forward. As dental hygienists, it's exciting to be on the front lines in changing the direction of another's life. Can cleaning someone's teeth change their life? Absolutely!

I now serve more than 20 people in this residence, and more are signing up. It blesses me! I have met many wonderful and interesting people. One man, 92-year-old Keith, worked on bombers in World War II, and he can tell you anything you want to know about planes. A woman, 86-year-old Virginia, was a teacher for more than 50 years, serving in our local community. Tom, an 89-year-old farmer, had homesteaded generations on a family farm. He loves to talk about his cows! We talk together, we sing, we laugh, and we brush, brush, brush. For some, this is the only outside contact they have. It's more than cleaning teeth; it's about injecting yourself into the lives of others.

I have repeatedly told my husband that I would love to go to Peru or Guatemala or Mexico to serve the dental needs of the community. The other day he laughed at me and said, "Do you know that you are on the mission field, and guess what -- it's in your own backyard."

They say it takes a village, and it does. I am so honored to be a part of it. To be one of Lydia's angels blesses me. RDH

Suzanne has started a volunteer program called Lydia's Angels, in honor of Lydia, and hopes to reach residents in other assisted living communities in her "own backyard."

SUZANNE HUBBARD, RDH, works in Greeley, Colo., at Greeley Dental Health Centers.

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