When we work with people who are living with dementia, we are privileged to hear stories from their past about how they came to America or how their parents or grandparents immigrated to this land. We work with people of many and varied ethnic groups, religions and cultures and so their stories of immigration vary greatly. There are, however, a few themes that are common to all of the elders telling us these stories: They or their forbearers came here knowing no English, with no discernable skills and only a few pesos, lira, marks, francs or rubles in their pockets. But they all, every one of them, made a life here and contributed enormously to their new home, America. Here are a few of the stories that people with dementia have so generously shared with us.
Ezra was 102 years old when we first met him. He was unsure of where he was (a long-term care center), the year or the decade was. He never remembered us. But Ezra remembered his German grandfather, a man who cleared the Indiana forests with only a sharp axe and an indomitable will. He would inspect his sons and grandsons each Sunday morning to make sure they had come up to scratch before they were allowed to walk the few miles to church. Ezra and his family continued to farm the land that his grandfather cleared, producing meat, milk and grain.
One day we were working on a “flags of the world” exercise with Jenny, who usually said very little and slept through much of the day. When Jenny saw the flag of Norway, she picked it up and studied it and then began to tell us in a thick accent about her trip to America when she was fourteen and all alone. She described in great detail watching the ship pull away from the Norwegian shore and seeing the poppies dancing in the wind. That was the last she ever saw of her homeland or her family. Upon her arrival in American, Jenny had to attend first grade to learn English. She told us how embarrassed she was to sit in the little desks with a room full of six year olds. So, she studied very hard and learned English very quickly. Jenny married a baker from Denmark and they opened their own neighborhood bakery. She told us it was her job to go from their apartment to the bakery downstairs very early in the morning to light the ovens for her husband. The other elderly ladies in the group hearing this story began to laugh and one of them said to Jenny, “I’ll bet you kept it hot for him!”
There was Nick who told us how he and his brothers swam rivers and climbed mountains to escape Hungary and the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who rampaged through villages to force young men to fight the emperor’s wars with them. Nick was only 17 years old when his ship docked at Ellis Island. He and his older brothers split up when they arrived. His two brothers went to Detroit to find work in the burgeoning auto factories, but Nick liked the look of Chicago and got off the train there. He learned English, raised a family of four children and became a pattern maker at Air Motor of Chicago, a company that made windmills that are found on farms all over this country. His son, Nick Jr., was a decorated pilot in WWII and saved many American soldiers.
Esther’s family were immigrants who came to this country with nothing and built a sod house on the prairie. At 95, she still remembered with great affection the little house in the great sea of grass on the Nebraska plains. She told us that the sod house stayed cool in the summer and warm in the winter. She even had an old photograph of a tiny Christmas tree standing in the corner of their sod house. Esther was a poet and a musician and a woman of deep faith and a very proud American.
All of the people we’ve met in our work involving dementia have made contributions, great and small to the United States. They tell the stories of their travels here or their families’ journeys to America with great pride and with great thankfulness. We, their fellow Americans, should take a moment and honor these courageous and adventuresome souls who left behind everything they knew to come to this strange land where they did not understand the language, where they had to work very hard and where they were often not wanted. But it was and is their struggle, and their gifts that have made America the great land it is today.