I’m a college professor, and I have favorite students.
Maybe you think this is a horrible thing to say, but it’s unavoidable. I connect with some students more than others. And there are certain students for which I would go to the end of the earth.
On the top of that list is Michelle Remold, who graduated a couple years ago. And maybe I haven’t literally gone to the end of the earth for her, but I did drive to Minnesota on my own dollar to do a community education at the senior center where she currently works. Of course, she did buy me dinner and a margarita after the presentation.
Michelle created a program called Memory Trunks for our Gerontology program. I still do the program that she started. She actually made me a handbook so I could do it after she graduated. This handbook has been sitting on my desk for three years. In all honestly, I haven’t opened it in two years, but I can’t put it in a drawer because I think it’s so awesome she made it for me.
Michelle came to my office after doing Memory Trunks one day and told me a story that has stuck with me. She had been at a nursing home and was visiting with an activity director who said she “didn’t know what to do with” residents with dementia.
First, Michelle was bothered that an activity director had no idea how to work with individuals with dementia, and she should have been. Second, Michelle had an issue with a statement the activity director made about how the residents with dementia had such “active imaginations.”
Something clicked for me. Michelle was right on. We need to stop thinking that people with dementia have “active imaginations” and accept what they hear, see, feel, and touch as their reality.
One of the most important truths I have discovered over the past several years is that what people with dementia experience is as real as what I experience.
I recently talked to a friend who told me her grandma had dementia and thought a couple with a cat lived in the corner of her bedroom. That couple with their cat? They were just as real to her as the laptop I am typing on right now is to me. If you try to talk her out of thinking that couple lives in her bedroom, you’re gonna have the same result you have if you tell me that there’s no laptop in front of me.
I have a short video clip I show in class. A woman with Alzheimer’s thinks there are snakes in her wheelchair. She’s terrified–as I would be if I were surrounded by snakes as I sit here on the couch. The only effective strategy for eliminating her anxiety is to acknowledge this as reality and remove her from the wheelchair with the snakes. Whether or not these snakes are part of your reality is irrelevant.
We need to stop trying to talk people out of their reality. Furthermore, we need to stop thinking that our reality is more important than their reality.