Limitations in Dementialand (and Comments on Why I Am Not a Nashville Recording Artist)

When I was growing up, my parents told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. I could do whatever I wanted to do. They said that the sky was the limit. I should aim high and I could accomplish anything in the entire world.


I cannot accomplish anything in the entire world.

For instance, I’d love to tour and sing with a band. As I child, I spent a lot of time singing in front of the mirror to my favorite tapes (yes, tapes) using a remote control as a microphone. As time went on, it become apparent that my dream of singing with a band would not come true.

I have twice been accused of mocking the national anthem. In my defense, I was just singing it along with a group. However, people have actually thought I was making fun of our country because my rendition of it was so awful. Now I always lip sync the national anthem. It’s just the best way for me to show respect for our country.

Despite being voice-challenged, I love karaoke. In my early 20s, I sang karaoke with a friend at a bar in Des Moines called Miss Kitty’s. After our rendition of “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” by Toby Keith, we walked back to our table. My boyfriend at the time said to my friend, “You sounded really good.” Then he looked at me awkwardly and took a long pause. He finally said, “Elaine, you looked kinda cute up there.”

I won’t ever tour and sing with a band. There will be no record deal for me. I think I started the long journey toward acceptance of this when I hit 30, although every once in a while I relive that childhood fantasy I had to be Reba McEntire and sing “Fancy” to a packed crowd. (By the way, it was only a couple years ago that I realized “Fancy” was about prostitution. I just thought it was about a girl heading off to the big city to grow as a person.)

We tell our kids they can do whatever they want in life. We tell them that they can be whoever they want. And I really think we are all capable of being successful, but we need to pick goals that fit with our strengths. We have to know ourselves, and that means knowing what we are good at–and what we aren’t good it. We gotta figure out what we can do and what we can’t do. Success is about hard work and determination. It’s also about “fit.”

I met a wonderful woman who volunteered for many years at a hospital’s gift shop. The hospital staff loved visiting with her, and she enjoyed helping hospital visitors pick out gifts for friends and family. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she struggled to run the cash register. A few times she made errors in counting cash at the end of her shift. It was time for the volunteer coordinator to tell her that she just wasn’t able to volunteer at the gift shop anymore. It broke both of their hearts.

To her credit, the volunteer coordinator told her that she didn’t want to lose such a valuable member of their team. They had a long conversation and another plan was put in place. The woman would volunteer for the gift shop in a different way. She would knit scarves, hats, and mittens. Then her husband would deliver her work to the gift shop to be sold. All proceeds would go to the hospital’s pediatric cancer unit.

No matter how determined that woman had been to keep running the cash register at the gift shop, it just wasn’t a fit for her any longer. And, to be truthful, there may be a time in her future when knitting for charity isn’t a fit for her. It’s not a matter of strength or will. Our skills and capabilities change. That’s true for people with dementia, and it’s true for the rest of us.

The challenge is accepting those limitations and finding goals that make the most of present abilities. We all struggle to accept our limitations. In other words, sometimes we need to let go. We need to let go of what we can’t do in order to fully appreciate what we can do. And that’s not easy. There are times we need to push hard to pursue our dreams, and there are times when we need to realize that we could make more of a difference in this world if we put our talents toward a different dream. However, sometimes accepting our limitations and letting go means that we have make uncomfortable admissions to ourselves. It might mean we have to admit that we’re not good enough at biology to go to med school, that we aren’t genetically made to run a marathon in under three hours, or that our Alzheimer’s disease is progressing and there’s nothing we can do to stop this.

With dementia it may be more of a struggle to accept limitations because abilities change quickly and the disease itself may make it difficult to have insight about one’s functioning. Someone with dementia may also forget their limitations. They may forget they can’t drive or forget they no longer go to work everyday.

If I’m being honest, I sometimes forget my limitations as well. About once a year, I decided I’m going to sing karaoke. I’m reminded very quickly of why I am a college professor and not a music sensation. And it’s a good way to affirm that I’ve made some wise choices along my career path. Thank goodness I didn’t move to Nashville when I was 18 like my heart was telling me to.