Missed Potential in Dementialand

We spend too much time thinking about what people can’t do rather than focusing on what they can do. And I am no exception. Sometimes I forget to look for the abilities and strengths of people with dementia. How blind can I be?

Speaking of abilities…My friend Jen Eby is amazingly talented. She made me a beautiful quilt for Christmas. It matches the colors we just painted the living and dining room. I am like Linus from the Peanuts gang with this quilt. I carry it from the couch, to the recliner, to bed…If it were acceptable, I would take it to work. And, considering Iowa’s recent weather, I may consider this even if it’s not acceptable.

I was texting with Jen about how much I love this quilt and how I wish I had a hobby like quilting that I could do at night to unwind. We were talking about how I could learn crocheting. (If you know me, you may be laughing at this thought. I’m not offended.) Jen said there were plenty of online resources, including YouTube tutorials, for people who want to learn to crochet. She said it’s not that hard to teach yourself.

Then she reminded me that I was a gerontologist and asked if I knew any older ladies who might like to teach me.

Wow. I was disappointed in myself that it was so obvious and yet I hadn’t thought of it. I walk in and out of nursing homes, memory care units, and adult day services a few times a week. I see many women knitting or crocheting. Some of them have dementia. They may struggle to tell me what season it is or what they had for breakfast, but they continue making blankets, hats, gloves, you name it….But when thinking about how I could learn to crochet, it never occurred to me to use them as a resource.

Why hadn’t it occurred to me? I am always promoting positive views of dementia (or at least trying to). Yet I hadn’t thought about asking one of my friends with dementia to teach me to crochet until Jen suggested it.

As dementia progresses, affected persons may struggle to learn new things because of compromised short-term memory. But sometimes the ability to teach remains long after the ability to learn heads south.

Just like the rest of us, individuals with dementia are unique. As the saying goes, “If you’ve seen one person with dementia, you’ve seen one person with dementia.” And their skills and capabilities are unique.

We talk a lot about what people with dementia can’t do. We discuss their challenges. We know it’s a struggle.

And, yet, they sometimes amaze me.

I once talked to a woman who was in her 50’s and working on her master’s degree when she was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. She was able to finish up her degree. She got it done faster because she knew it might get harder if she procrastinated and her dementia progressed.

I am continually impressed with those who have dementia but remain involved in advocacy work. They lobby for more money to be put toward research, work to reduce stigma, and talk about their experiences to help the rest of us “get it.” I know a lot of people in the earlier stages of dementia who participate in significant amounts of volunteer work in a variety of settings. Of course, some are in the workplace. Sure, they may have limitations, but really don’t we all have our limitations?

I like to think that every person I come in contact with knows something I don’t know. Everyone has something to teach me–whether or they are aware they are teaching me or not. Dementia doesn’t change this. In fact, over the past few years people with dementia have been some of my best teachers. They’ve taught me historical lessons (about things like flagpole sitting, D-Day, and why we use tinsel on Christmas trees) and life lessons (e.g., the stuff that really matters in life).

And to think it never occurred to me that someone with dementia could teach me to crochet.

P.S. I still haven’t learned to crochet. Not that I don’t have anyone to teach me. Just that I decided it seems kinda boring and tedious. As I said, we all have our strengths. I’ve come to the realization that crocheting might not be one of mine.

2 thoughts on “Missed Potential in Dementialand

  1. Thanks for this blog! I appreciate your perspective, and training, and general wit and warmth. Am living with older partner with early Alzheimer’s and can relate to everything you are saying. Thanks again.


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