Sometimes in life you see what you expect to see.
I’ve realized that I expect to see dementia. I know how common it is, and I recognize some potential symptoms that others might not notice.
I think about dementia a lot. I write about dementia. I teach about dementia. When I look at the world around me, perhaps I see the world a bit differently because–no matter where I am and what I’m doing–I have dementia on my mind to some degree.
For instance, a few nights ago I was walking down the street after a college basketball game in St. Louis. I saw a man who was likely in his 60’s walking across the street. He was stumbling a bit, and he looked somewhat disoriented. I’m guessing that most people would assume this guy was drunk…but my mind goes straight to “I wonder if he has dementia.” To be fair, it’s probably much more likely that he was drunk, but I see my world through dementia-colored glasses.
I should also add that there are many other possibilities outside of being drunk and having dementia. Maybe it was something else entirely. And it’s a possibility he was drunk and had dementia.
I walked into a theater for a reception yesterday morning (also in St. Louis) with some university administrators and staff members. Everyone else was eyeing the breakfast buffet, but the first words out of my mouth were “This carpet is so not dementia-friendly.” Traveling with me has to be annoying.
Last weekend I was in Springfield, Missouri, with our women’s basketball team. I was sitting with three of our student-athletes at the hotel’s continental breakfast when an older gentlemen walked in and made a plate of breakfast food. He was muttering to himself, and I immediately tuned in because….of course….I wondered if he might have dementia.
He sat by himself but kept talking as if someone was in the seat across from him. He spoke loudly–and at one point he exclaimed, “Well, that’s why I quit drinking in the first place!”
There would be pauses in the conversation but they were short. He’d start up again like another person had just joined him. “Hello there!” he’d say. He must be hallucinating, I thought. He must see a person sitting in that seat.
I was chatting with our student-athletes about relationships and classes, but I was keeping an eye on this gentleman and wondering if perhaps he needed assistance. I wondered if he was staying alone at the hotel. Maybe, I thought, he’s not even staying at the hotel. Perhaps he had become disoriented and was doing what people in the dementia field called “wandering.” Maybe his family was looking for him.
After observing him for about 30 minutes, I said to the basketball players, “I’m concerned about that guy over there. I’m thinking maybe he has dementia.”
“You mean the guy on his phone?” one of the players said.
I looked again.
And then I noticed he was wearing an ear piece. It wasn’t easy to see, but you’d think I would have noticed it after watching him for 30 minutes. And his cell phone was sitting in front of him on the table. I hadn’t noticed that either.
After she pointed out he was on his phone, I realized I had tuned in to all the clues that told me he might have dementia. I had tuned out all the clues that might have told me otherwise.
I have to wonder what other clues in life I am tuning out—because I see the world through my own biases. I ignore information that may be obvious to others around me. I focus on details that confirm my own hypothesis.
I spend a lot of time trying to convince families that their loved one with dementia sees the world differently–that they process information differently and live in a different reality.
But I guess that’s true of all of us.