If I meet someone for the first time and they ask what I do for a living, I say that I’m a college professor. If the conversation goes a little further, I tell them that part of my role is also doing community outreach on Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
A typical response is, “Being around people with dementia must be so difficult.” Sometimes people say, “That must be really hard for you.”
They say it as if they think I’m some sort of Mother Theresa. Trust me…They’ve definitely no reason to perceive me as a saint. When I get frustrated, I curse like a sailor, and there are times I’m not even all that nice (in my defense, that’s typically when I’m hangry). I also once punched a guy at a waterpark while we were both treading water–although that was because the guy was stealing inner tubes from small children. But, in summary, I’m in no way an angel.
I’ve struggled to verbalize how I feel when someone says it must be hard working with people who have dementia or when someone says I’m great for working with “those people.” Finally I’ve finally come up with a response.
I say something like, “Working with people who have dementia is not nearly as hard as having dementia.”
I went to a memory care community a while back to visit some people who have Alzheimer’s. I was looking forward to seeing a particular woman–that I’ll call Donna–that I had a great chat with when I had visited the previous month. (For the purposes of my work, a “great” chat may not make a bit of sense but generally includes a lot of smiling and laughing.)
However, when I got there, Donna seemed like a completely different person. I’m not talking about her level of confusion. (I don’t judge how well someone is doing by their level of confusion. In fact, sometimes “pleasantly confused” is a great goal).
In sum, her whole demeanor was different. No smiling. No laughing. I couldn’t connect with her. She wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
Donna was anxious. Almost panicky. Terrified of something. But she couldn’t express what. And I just couldn’t get “in.”
She was teary-eyed and it was almost like she couldn’t catch her breath. Perhaps she was having a panic attack. I wondered if she was in pain but I was told the nurses had found no reason she’d be hurting.
I had no idea how to help her. I sat with her for a while. She was sitting in a recliner by her bed, and I sat on the edge of her bed. I think she knew I was there, but I don’t know.
I went to talk to the lifestyle coordinator at the facility, who happened to be one of my former students. I asked her about the situation and she got visibly emotional. She said this had been going on for a few weeks and she didn’t know what to do either. They had been using sedatives but they seemed to cause hallucinations and other side effects for Donna.
We decided to try some music. I have seen music have amazing effects for people with dementia. In many cases, it can be more effective than a sedative in reducing anxiety. We turned on some Sam Cooke. If anything, it made her more agitated. We tried Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra. Even worse. At one point (during “I Walk the Line” if I remember correctly), she lifted her arm like she was trying to slap the lifestyle coordinator. It was her only acknowledgment that we were with her.
When I was in Donna’s room with the lifestyle coordinator, Donna’s daughter and teenage granddaughters came to visit. They lived across the state and hadn’t seen her for a while. The sight of her made them break down. One of Donna’s granddaughters went down to the lounge and didn’t come back.
I remember taking a glance at my cell phone and realizing that I had stayed much longer than I had planned to. I had a meeting on campus, and I had to hustle to get there.
I remember getting into my car and taking a moment to just breath–even if meant I’d be a little late to my meeting. I’ve been with people with dementia in their final hours and as they’ve passed away, but those few hours with Donna were much, much tougher for me.
On a personal note, I related to Donna because I’ve had issues with anxiety and depression. Although I at times felt alone on my journey, looking back I really have never been alone. I could reach out for support. I could connect with people who cared about me, and people have always been there when I needed them.
Donna, on the other hand, was alone. We were with her, but she was alone. She couldn’t let us in to support her. She couldn’t let us in to be there for her. I had this strong feeling that Donna needed us, and I knew we wanted to be with her, but Alzheimer’s wouldn’t let us.
That was the hardest day I’ve had working with someone with dementia. As I drove back to campus, I felt a little bit sorry for myself. My mind was on Donna (and my failure in being there for her) but I had to pull it together for a meeting on something that seemed pretty inconsequential. I was tempted to say I was sick and skip the meeting. I was exhausted. And I felt like a loser, to be honest. I have a ridiculous amount of tools in my repertoire to connect with people who have dementia. Every single one of them had been an epic fail on this day. It was a bad day for me.
Then I realized it wasn’t a bad day for me….because it wasn’t about me. It was breaking my heart that all of my strategies had failed with Donna, but thinking this way made it about me–not about Donna.
Donna had a bad day.
So is it hard to work with people who have dementia? I don’t think it’s harder than working with other people. In fact, I could never work with preschoolers or juvenile delinquents. I’d lose my mind. And I had a very brief career in retail when I was in high school. That’s when I realized how horrible people can be. And don’t even get me started on when I worked at the Chinese restaurant. I lasted three weeks.
Sometimes working with people who have dementia is challenging or frustrating–but I think working with people in general can be challenging or frustrating.
Any frustration I feel working with people who have dementia does not compare to the frustration of having dementia. Sometimes I have anxiety when I work with people who have dementia…because I worry I’m not handling a situation right or that I’m making things worse. But that anxiety is nothing compared to the anxiety some of my friends with dementia feel. So is working with people who have dementia that hard? Nah. Not really.
And am I a saint? Not even close. And I don’t like it when people imply that I must be some sort of angel for working with people who dementia because that suggests that it must be such an unpleasant ordeal that only an angel would do it. That’s just not the case.
Some of the most amazing people I know happen to have dementia. Being able to enter their world has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.