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A memory retrieved

A case of mistaken identity aids Marilyn Bell in connecting with residents at a long-term care facility

Nov 07, 2016, By: Marilyn Bell, BScN, RN
Marilyn Bell swimming
The Canadian Press
Another Marilyn Bell takes on Lake Ontario in September 1954. It is a feat that is still remembered.

Over the last 35 years, I haven’t given much thought to my name. When I was a kid, I sometimes wished I had been given a name that was more dramatic and original. To the friends I grew up with, my name didn’t mean much of anything. But to my grandparents and my friends’ grandparents, my name did mean something. As I was growing up, adults always had something to say about it: “Oh…Marilyn Bell! Aren’t you the girl who swam Lake Ontario?” Everyone would laugh, and I would smile. It was awkward. I knew early on who Marilyn Bell was and that she was a Canadian legend because I had heard it a million times before. But my friends didn’t know, and I was always embarrassed when I was singled out because of my name. As I grew older, I would rely on what I thought were witty responses: “Why yes, that was me. Haven’t I aged well?” or “Yes, but I have long since retired.” I became used to taking part in an exchange of insignificant pleasantries.

I am a nurse manager in a long-term care facility, where I provide care for our 110 residents. They range in age from 60 to 100 plus. When new residents meet me for the first time and read my name badge, the old question about who I am inevitably comes up. These days, however, I don’t have witty retorts ready because I have learned that these are opportunities for them to reflect on and rejoice in the past.

Almost every resident remembers Marilyn Bell and has a story about her exhausting 21-hour swim across Lake Ontario. Hers was a huge accomplishment, especially for a 16-year-old. They remember where they were when they first heard about her, what they were doing when she made it to Toronto and how they felt when she climbed out of the water on Sept. 8, 1954. Their memories of that day are as clear as those of the day JFK was shot or of the morning Elvis was found dead. My name triggers a feel-good memory of a proud moment in Canadian history. It’s a moment they can look back on and it’s a chance for both of us, resident and nurse, to connect, reminisce and begin to develop a therapeutic relationship.

From the residents in our memory care unit, I can get an even more interesting reaction. These residents have varying stages of dementia and require increased nursing support. Some of them no longer recognize family members, have forgotten how to do simple tasks and require assistance with eating, drinking and dressing. But every once in a while, I discover some are aware of who Marilyn Bell is. When they read my name badge or hear me say my name, they immediately view me as my famous namesake. In their mind, I am her.

The number 1 rule we follow in caring for residents with dementia is that we never argue. Telling them the truth about Marilyn Bell would only confuse and upset them. I have had residents ask me very specific questions about the swim and expect answers. To deny them those answers would be cruel. So, I admit, I have played the part. I report how difficult the swim was. How I was cold and tired. How proud I am to have made my mark in Canadian sporting history. You can see in their eyes how excited they are to hear the real story and relive an unforgettable day. My story validates their memory, gives them control of the moment and elicits obvious pride and happiness.

I recognize now that with my work in long-term care, I couldn’t have asked for a better name. In fact, I am thankful for it as a way to form a connection, as a starting point for building a relationship. Then, I think about people of my generation and my own future, and I realize I need to play up this connection for all it’s worth while it is still possible. Marilyn Bell’s achievements will be forgotten soon enough. By the time I am admitted to a long-term care facility, Marilyn Bell will be just another name.

Memories do live on in our residents. It’s up to us to find ways to help them tap into the best ones. When you don’t have a famous name to trade on, the answer is to dig a little deeper. This is not an impossible task. It becomes a journey, similar to Bell’s famous swim. You begin by submerging yourself in the vast and unfamiliar waters of a resident’s life. You navigate through the person’s past and present, riding the waves and identifying the highs and lows, despite the toll it might take on you physically, mentally and emotionally. You don’t want to give up, so you tread water until you get a glimpse of the shore in the distance. You persist, take a deep breath and fight the current. The waves help push you forward, the journey gets easier and, before you know it, you reach the shore. You have gained access to a special moment in time for this person, one that you will be able to recall and celebrate.

Marilyn Bell, BScN, RN, works in a long-term care facility in Parry Sound, Ont. She loves the water and once managed to swim across a lake that was nowhere near the size of Lake Ontario.