Carrie Gendle, a senior at CUI, took a job in 2014 working at an elder care facility for Alzheimer’s patients. The unexpectedly personal nature of the work inspired a book of poetry chronicling her deeply felt experiences.
“I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” Gendle says. “I had never experienced Alzheimer’s firsthand. It was jumping in blind. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot.’”
So began her three-month odyssey into life with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The home was located in a residential area. Gendle was surprised to find she would be working directly with patients.
“I’m a somewhat socially awkward person,” she says. “Now I was interacting with all these new people and didn’t know if I had anything in common with them. How do you talk to someone who is suffering with an illness and doesn’t know what they are saying a lot of the time?”
Her first approach was to handle it clinically and cordially. But soon she found that to do her job well she had to relate to the residents as people.
“It’s easy to say, ‘This is an empty shell. Nothing is left of who they were.’ But that’s not true,” Gendle says. “Everyone in the home had their unique personalities. They know what’s going on. When people were embarrassed or sad I realized, ‘I’m here to take care of you in every regard and that means getting to know you.’”
She soon learned each patients’ quirks, histories and the names of their kids and siblings so she could do activities that jogged their memories. She also guided them through moments when they couldn’t remember and became upset.
One man, renamed Steve in Gendle’s poetry, couldn’t speak and would get so frustrated that he hit people and tried to run away from the home. He had been kicked out of three previous homes.
“He hated me I think because I was younger and newer,” Gendle says. “But he had little moments where you try to listen to what he was saying and he’d say, ‘Will you hold my hand?’ So I’m sitting there holding his hand trying not to cry.”
Learning the details of each resident’s personality and habits was important to serving them well.
“‘Give this person medication before dinner instead of after,’” Gendle says. “‘This person will want to stay at the table; this person will want to run off.’ It takes time to learn all those.
One man would eat dinner, see his empty plate and think he hadn’t been served. Carrie learned to take his plate as soon as he was done so it wouldn’t confuse him.
“It attaches you to people really quickly, the little details,” she says. “I told my mom, ‘This job is going to be so hard, but there’s no way I’m not doing it.’”
In an advanced creative writing class at CUI, poems about the experience started flowing. Gendle wrote a poem called “Steve,” which so impressed professor Thea Gavin ’95, that Gavin encouraged Gendle to write a whole chapbook about her experiences at the home. (A chapbook is a small, stapled book of poetry, sometimes including illustrations.)
“Carrie is phenomenal,” says Gavin. “It was such a privilege to work with her. Week after week she brought in these vivid, touching and funny-in-an-appropriate-way poems. I would cry pretty much every week over a poem. My father and mother both have dementia. It was a real privilege to be by Carrie’s side during this journey of exploring through poetry. She’s such a master of detail which is what makes it come alive— the level of authenticity and authority from the detail she observes.”
Working at the Alzheimer’s home fed Gendle’s creativity. “As a caregiver you are like a poet because you have to notice details,” Gendle says. “‘He’s not eating his fruit today. What does that mean? Maybe his health is declining and the emotions associated with that.’ The watchfulness you need as a caregiver is the same watchfulness you need as a poet.”
The watchfulness you need as a caregiver is the watchfulness you need as a poet.
Though she doubted she would have enough poetry to make a small volume, with Gavin’s encouragement Gendle produced a set of poems that read like a journey through her experience.
“Part of her talent is she’s open to experimenting in her poetic style,” Gavin says. “She has prose, sonnets, different points of view of a patient, a caregiver, her own point of view. It was a wonderful project and quite an accomplishment.”
Gendle says she was so excited to hold the first copy that she went to her car and squealed.
“The whole creative writing course reinforced for me that this is what I want to do,” she says. “I like being taken on a journey, to see the personal side and be told a story. Writing will be a lifelong thing for me. This is not my last chapbook, that’s for sure.”
Gendle shared her poems at a campus poetry presentation. “Young people have a fear of the elderly and Alzheimer’s,” Gendle says. “[With these poems] they can see the connection. People with Alzheimer’s are not monsters and are not scary. They’re just people.”
CUI helped Gendle confirm that she wants to be an English professor, like Gavin.
“I’ve had nothing but good experiences with the English department,” Gendle says. “I’m incredibly impressed by it. Professor Gavin is so enthusiastic about what she teaches, and has such a great attitude and strong faith. It made me want to teach people more.”
On Gendle’s last day of work, Steve, the patient who hit others and tried to run away, died. Gendle spent time with him in his last hours. “I really cared about this person,” she says. “I spent three months getting to know him and now he was gone. It was upsetting to go through that, and that inspired some of the poems in the collection.”
Carrie graduates in May, then will marry and move to Sacramento to continue writing and pursue graduate studies so she can start teaching.
“I love helping people learn to love this crazy language I love so much,” she says. “The desire to help people write has never gone away.”