Changing the Environment in Dementialand (and How I Broke One of My Worst Habits Ever)

Recently I realized I had developed a really bad habit. Not just bad but dangerous. I had started glancing at my phone while driving. I’d hear it buzz and couldn’t resist taking a look to see who had sent me a text or email. I wasn’t that person driving in traffic with my phone in my hand, but I wasn’t proud that I couldn’t drive the 12 1/2 minutes home without looking at my phone at stoplights.

So I tried to stop. And I couldn’t. It had become a habit, and habits can be hard to break. I wasn’t going to be able to easily extinguish my urge my look at my phone, so I was going to have to change my environment.

I made a decision to silence my phone and put it on the floor of the backseat where I could not see or hear it. For a couple of days, I found myself wanting to look at it. Eventually I stopped thinking about it as much. Putting my phone out of reach and out of sight (literally) made all the difference.

I decided to try this strategy after thinking about the advice I give many family and professional caregivers who have loved ones with dementia. I am always using the phrase “Change the environment.” Changing the environment is easier than changing a person’s impulses, thoughts, and behaviors. In other words, putting my phone where I couldn’t reach it was easier than not reaching for my phone when it was on the seat next to me.

At a caregiver support group, I spoke to a woman who said that her husband with Alzheimer’s was destroying things around their home. For instance, he had stood on a chair, taken the clock off the wall, and yanked the hands off of the clock’s face. He had also slammed some of her collectible dolls onto the floor, cracking off their heads. One day he even took some framed photos of the wall and literally threw them out the back door. She found herself losing patience with him.

She asked what she could do to get him to stop. I only had one idea. She needed to change the environment. I suggested she take anything she found valuable, meaningful, or important and place it in one room of the house. She could then use a lock system to keep him out of this room. As long as the items were around and available to him, he was going to continue to destroy them (and she was going to yell at him). As I saw it, the only option was to change the environment.

I gave the same advice to staff at a nursing home recently. A woman with dementia had a room that overlooked a fantastic garden. In the middle of the garden was a large concrete rabbit. The woman thought the rabbit was a stray cat, and she spent a lot of time worrying about this stray cat. She didn’t know if someone was feeding it or if it had a home. All day long, she tried to go outside to help the cat. It was to the point that the woman was sometimes in tears because she wanted to check on the cat but couldn’t get outside. She was wondering around the facility in hysterics. Obviously, telling her the concrete rabbit wasn’t a cat was not helpful. Again, I only had one suggestion–change the environment.

I asked an employee if it was possible to move the concrete rabbit. She explained that it was purchased specifically for that spot. Then I proposed another idea…move the resident to room where she could not see the rabbit. In the end, they did move the rabbit. I guess that was the easier option. They changed the environment.

Changing the environment can set us all up for success. I’m not just referring to those with dementia. If we don’t want to be tempted to get ice cream on our way home from work everyday, we should modify our route so we don’t drive by Dairy Queen. If we don’t want to spend more than $50 on a trip to Target, we should take $50 cash and leave the credit cards at home. If we are trying to curb drinking, we should stay out of bars. It’s easier to modify the environment than to depend on our willpower and reasoning when challenges arise.

When it comes to “challenging behaviors” in dementia, sometimes changing the environment seems to be an obvious solution, but it doesn’t occur to the people closest to the situation. I once spoke to a woman whose mom had Alzheimer’s and was hospitalized for a urinary tract infection. A friend had sent beautiful (and likely expensive) flowers to the hospital. The flowers sat in a large vase in the corner of the room. However, the mother thought the flowers were a scary clown face. She kept complaining about the clown in the corner staring her down.

The daughter and the nurses kept bringing the flowers over to show her that they were indeed flowers rather than a clown face. Of course, she was not convinced and become more and more agitated. Then a 10-year-old relative stopped in. He sized up the situation, picked up the flowers, and slammed them in the trash. Then he yelled, “I killed Scary Clown!” Problem solved. (In retrospect, he could’ve taken them out to the nurses’ station, but I guess he had a taste for the dramatic.)

It’s much easier to move a concrete rabbit than to convince a woman with dementia that the concrete rabbit is not a stray cat who might be hungry. It’s much easier to put valuables in another room than to nag a guy with Alzheimer’s about why he shouldn’t demolish them. And it’s easier for me to put my iPhone in the backseat than to try to resist the urge to look at it while driving.

If you interact with someone who has dementia, consider changing the environment in particularly in response to behaviors that might be harmful and dangerous. If you have a goal or are trying to break a bad habit, consider changing your environment to set yourself up for success.

Oh, and if you can’t help but look at your phone while driving, throw it in the backseat. If that doesn’t work, consider the trunk.

3 thoughts on “Changing the Environment in Dementialand (and How I Broke One of My Worst Habits Ever)

  1. Thanks so much for this post – this is such a useful idea for general ife, and a wonderful start to my day!


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