Caring Currents

Witnessing Dementia

Last updated:

December 15, 2008
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One of the strange truisms about Alzheimer's and other dementias is that it tends to be easier to see what's not there rather than what is. After all, it's a disease of loss: memory loss, most noticeably, but also loss of the ability to reason, to drive, to recognize where you are, to manage finances, to go shopping without buying a tenth jar of unneeded mayonnaise.

Witnessing all this can lead family members and friends to underestimate the person with the disorder. I know I'm guilty of that. You see that they can't do this and they can't do that, and pretty soon you're neglecting to give them credit for much of anything. And while it's purely unintentional, it can be hurtful to both of you.

I thought about this over Thanksgiving while spending time with my 87-year-old Dad. He can no longer keep up with most conversations (although he can tell you the same charming anecdote -- 12 times in 15 minutes). He doesn't quite connect the strapping six-foot-two-inch teenager who shares the same name as the once-golden toddler he remembers as his first grandchild. And the proverbial tortoise would look like the speedy hare in a race with him to the mailbox.

But man, can he still play ping pong!

My brother has a table set up on his porch. Said teenager (my son) and his uncles began to play. Then I got roped into a game. Pretty soon Dad, who had been watching, challenged me. I admit I hesitated -- I didn't want him falling over or anything. I worried he was trying to do something that would only frustrate him.

But in truth, I think his steadily increasing dementia had caused me to assume he simply didn't have it in him. I'd mentally x'd it off his list of possibilities.

I won. But only barely.

I raced to retrieve the balls -- because he's slow and bending over to pick things up takes a loooooong time -- but his hand-eye coordination is superb. Like bowling, his favorite sport (he's still in a league), ping pong is deeply embedded in his make-up. He likes it. He's good. But mainly, he can still do it. And that makes him feel him feel great. Me, too.

We had fun.

So, some ideas for seeing past what isn't in someone with dementia, and seeing what is:

  • Assume nothing. Would Mom like to make a photo album? Take a little hike? True, there are many things that are cognitively beyond someone with dementia (like learning a new skill requiring many steps). But, hey, maybe she'd like to try.
  • Resist the well-intentioned impulse to be overly cautious. Common sense and safety are as important with elders as they are with children. But as with kids, it's possible to be overprotective. Sure, Dad might trip, Dad might fall, Dad might get hit in the face with a ping pong ball. But weigh that against what a great time he may have.
  • Put yourself in their Dr. Scholls. My brothers are great about thinking, as a starting point, what Dad likes to do: bowl, go to mass, tinker with mechanical things, stack wood, look at plants. The exact person he was has been kidnapped by dementia, and yet there's still a core of him there who plows ahead.

And it deserves a little credit, that's all.

Image by Flickr user jasperfields, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.