This may be disturbing. When I tell you Ted’s story, you might think, ‘Oh, that’s just so sad and tragic, I don’t want to hear about it.’ To which my response is, ‘Get over it.’ Yes, it’s sad and tragic when people lose their memories…or their minds, or their sight, or their mobility. But it’s a reality of life. So let’s talk about how to handle it, and how to help.
Ted is one of my favorite people. He’s bright, funny, and very, very smart. He also happens to have dementia. I’ve mentioned before that my Musical Memories sessions are “musical conversations” and that some people are more interested in the conversation part. Well, that’s Ted. Not that he doesn’t occasionally enjoy bringing his full baritone to a song or two, but mostly he likes the give and take of a good verbal exchange. And he likes to think.
I realized early on that although he rarely seems to know where he is – sometimes we’re on a train, sometimes in a hotel, once we were in some sort of swamp surrounded by boats – he knows how to evaluate, analyze and communicate. It’s what I’m sure made him highly successful in his military and industry careers; it’s something he’s proud of and clearly gives him great pleasure.
Like many dementia patients, Ted can no longer do most of the things he enjoys. He can’t play golf or bowl because he’s unsteady on his feet and can’t see well. He can’t read or watch a movie because he can’t follow and retain the storyline. And believe me, you will not see Ted at bingo or arts and crafts. He’s also a bit of an introvert, so he doesn’t seem to seek out groups of people to socialize. But he likes one-on-one conversations that allow him to stretch and exercise his considerable brainpower, despite the fact that what he’s discussing may not, in fact, be “real”.
So when we get together, I just ask him what’s going on. He’ll immediately start describing what he believes to be his current reality. I never try to convince him that, no, we aren’t on a train. Instead, I simply follow his train of thought, as it were, and let him lead us in an intelligent conversation about how we’ll be able to get off at the right stop and be sure we get back on again when we’re ready to leave. In the “swamp”, Ted had some fascinating insights about what kinds of crops grow best in that environment and why. These aren’t memories; this is real-time thinking. And for Ted, it’s fun.
I should note that I always make sure he isn’t feeling frightened. And if he seems to be spiraling down into a dark or depressed place, I’ll do some redirecting to help break that descent. (This is where a songs or two can come in handy.) One time he was very worried that his military supervisors wouldn’t be able to locate him because all his “paperwork” lists his name as Edward, but he’s been introducing himself as Ted. So I took out a pad of paper and very officiously wrote down his full name and birth date, and assured him I would see that the correct information got to the proper authorities. And then he was fine.
Ted is a thinking man for whom intelligent, thoughtful conversation is a favorite pastime – one of the few that are still available to him.
So here’s my thought: If you know or love someone with dementia, someone who is a thinker and has always enjoyed intelligent conversation, engage them. Let them talk and follow their lead. Converse, but don’t challenge or correct their perceptions of reality. Banter and joke with them. Ask questions, but don’t dig for facts they may not remember, like how old they are or how many children they have. They may not recall the details of their lives, but the person you know is still there, thinking.
And if you are a thinker and enjoy intelligent conversation, you might think about sharing this with your loved ones now. Because you never know.