Sister Ann Lorette Piekarz is a blessing sent by God to the many individuals living at Rosary Care Center who are impacted by the isolating symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Several days each week you’ll find Sister Ann Lorette making room visits or sitting in the lounge with one or more residents talking, looking at pictures or just holding hands. Her love overflows into the space between them.
“Oh, I love them fiercely,” she says passionately. “It hurts me to walk into a room and see someone sitting alone, disengaged and lost. I simply try to be there with them. I want them to know they are not alone. I embrace them, hold their hand, and let them know that I love them.”
Her father gave her first-hand training during his decade-long downward spiral into dementia.
“I learned important lessons about letting go,” she says. “I had to let go of the notion of my father being able to do things like he used to. In fact, I had to learn that the very best thing I could do was to love him and accept what he was able to do that day – speak, get dressed, sing – and not compare that to what he did the day before.”
As the sibling that lived closest to their family home in Detroit, she spent a great deal of time helping her mother care for her father. The experience was very meaningful and became a catalyst for her ministry. While still working, she trained for five years at the Alzheimer’s Association and served as a Hospice respite volunteer for eight years.
Today she walks into Rosary Care and prays to God to let Him be in her mind, on her lips and in her heart as she ascends to the second and third floor units to see the residents with dementia.
She knocks on the open door to a patient room and greets her. As she walks into the room, she picks up a black and white portrait in a worn brass frame. “What a handsome man,” she says, smiling, turning toward the woman in the wheelchair. “I’ll bet this is your father,” she adds.
Later, she explains that most of her questions include an answer and that she tries to never ask a question that requires a specific answer, such as ‘what is your father’s name?’
“I try not to set them up to fail in any way because it’s very upsetting for them,” Sister Ann Lorette says.
She carries a tote bag filled with tools to help her get the residents engaged. Inside are two soft brightly colored balls, a giant deck of playing cards, a Polish music book, coloring pages and crayons, small replicas of saints carefully wrapped in soft paper, rosaries and a handmade picture book filled with magazine cut-outs of babies that she used to look at with her own father.
Although she’s looked at these images a hundred times, Sister Ann Lorette sits between two residents and cheerfully makes observations as she flips the pages. She points to the baby’s blue eyes and says ‘this baby has blue eyes like you do’ and ‘look at those perfect little toes!’ Sister M. beams and runs her hand over the baby’s cheeks repeating “Oh! Oh!” in a breathless voice. Delighted, Peggy inches forward to see the book and tells us that she had six babies.
Sister Lorette spontaneously launches into “Morning Bells Are Ringing” and her voice is like a warm hug. Both residents join in and they remember almost every word of the song. Sister Ann Lorette explains that engaging dementia patients through music often works even when the patient has lost the ability to form full sentences.
Her 47 years spent in ministry as a kindergarten and first grade teacher comes in handy. Her repertoire of simple childhood songs is as inexhaustible as her patience.
As she works through her activity bag, Sister Ann Lorette sings and smiles and keeps her eye out for other residents who might want to be included. The table fills up quickly and soon she has six people with different stages of dementia engaged in activity around the table. Four seniors play cards while the first two at the table close their eyes to rest. When it’s time to color, everyone wants a picture and a marker.
This week she feels like God sent a message when a nurse stopped her to say, “Do you know how grateful we are that you are doing this? Do you have any idea how much this means to these residents?”
Sister Ann Lorette does know how much it means to them because she can feel it. But it’s always good to hear it and see it.
Her eyes moisten as she shares the kind words of Sister Mary B. who said “Thank you for sitting with me and being near me.”
She remembers going to see someone who she hadn’t seen in a few days and how the resident gave her a huge smile and squeezed both of her hands.
“I love these moments,” Sister Ann Lorette says, “but it’s not about me. No matter where they are that day, I know that they are glad I’m there too.”
“Dementia is scary but we can’t be scared away. There is a person inside that needs us,” Sister Ann Lorette says. “There is a person inside who wants you to see them and notice them. They can’t vocalize the need, but it’s there.
“Take a risk that Jesus is calling you through that person and go to them. Because he is,” Sister Ann Lorette advises.
If you would like to contact Sister Ann Lorette Piekarz, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.