I’ve just done a program and am leaving a memory care community. I’m just about the put in the “code” to exit the building (which I always mess up) when a woman gets my attention.
“Hey!” she yells. “I’m a grandma!” She’s sitting on a couch with a pink blanket over her lap, and I decide to walk over and chat a few minutes. I’m not in a hurry to get back to campus anyway.
“So you’re a grandma?” I ask.
“Yep,” she says proudly. “My granddaughter was born just a couple of days ago.”
I have no idea whether or not this is true. Her granddaughter could be my age, but it doesn’t matter.
“That’s great. What’s her name?” I ask.
The woman looks at me. Long pause. Then her eyes get sad. Dang. That’s a mistake on my part.
A minute ago this woman was excited to tell me about her granddaughter. Now she’s embarrassed and sad because she doesn’t know her granddaughter’s name. Way to go, Elaine.
Instead of asking her to recall specific info about her granddaughter, I should have said, “Tell me more about your granddaughter.” She might have told me that she was 8 pounds when she was born, that she had blond hair, that she cries a lot. But she would be focusing on what she remembered rather than what she didn’t remember.
I talked to someone recently who had visited her grandpa who had Alzheimer’s at a nursing home. I asked how the visit went.
“Great!” she said. “He remembered what year it was, my name, where he was, and what he had for breakfast.”
All I could think was that it sounded like Grandpa had taken a test. (And, according to his granddaughter, had passed.) But most of us don’t enjoy tests.
But does recalling what year it is make it a “good day” for Grandpa? No, I don’t think so. But we like it when he remembers what year it is because it reaffirms that he’s still Grandpa.
Sometimes we say things like, “You know who I am, right, Grandpa?” This tells Grandpa that he should know who we are. If he doesn’t, he’s given the message that he’s stupid or doing something wrong.
How would you like it if someone walked up to you and made you do an algebra problem? What if they kept saying, “You know how to do this algebra problem, right? I know you do.” What if they stared at you expectantly when you were silent and your mind went completely blank?
But too often we like to make people with dementia play guessing games, which can be frustrated and tiring for them. A few years ago, a women with Alzheimer’s was sitting in her wheelchair at a nursing home. I watched as a younger man came up behind her, put his hands over her eyes, and said, “Guess who?”
I laughed out loud when she responded, “I have Alzheimer’s. My whole life is a ‘guess who’ game. Just tell me who you are, asshole.”
She had a point.