I was talking to some friends a few weeks back, and the TV show My 600-Pound Life on TLC came up in conversation. It’s a reality show about super-obese individuals who get weight loss surgery and attempt to change their lives for the better.
For some reason, I was hesitant to admit to my friends that I watch the show. I wanted to say I had never heard of it. I wanted to say I had no interest in watching a reality show like that. Yet, the truth is that I have a season pass on my DVR. I started thinking about what it was about this particular show that I enjoy, and I finally realized why it appeals me. I love a good before-and-after.
I used to watch What Not to Wear. I DVR’ed that one as well. I would watch the beginning but then fast forward to the end. I didn’t care about all the shopping and hair talk in the middle. The make-up tips didn’t interest me. I only cared about the before and the after.
I’m really not that into homes, design, or decorating, but I watch a bunch of shows on HGTV. Why? Because I enjoy the transformation. I love the idea of taking something that is in shambles and making it something wonderful. I also have somewhat of a crush on the Property Brother that does the construction. (The one that does the real estate number-crunching stuff just isn’t my type.)
I really get into those house-flipping shows. There’s Flip or Flop, Rehab Addict, Fixer Upper… If you know me at all, you know I have no interest in flipping a house. If I ever talk about flipping a house, please do an intervention. I like the idea of flipping a house, although it’s not something I have the skills to pursue. I just like the notion of transforming something into something much better. It’s about the before-and-after. The before is dull and drab. The after is bright and shiny.
I also watch Intervention on A&E for the before-and-after effect. Someone might be a drug addict before but maybe–just maybe–they can be a productive member of society after. There a certain level of hope in that.
In grad school, I lived with my friend, Lisa. We would watch Intervention every Sunday at 9 pm. Exactly at 9:40 (as the family was just gathering for the intervention), Lisa would say it was time for her to go to bed. It still bothers me that she didn’t get to see the after of all those drug addicts. Why watch if you don’t get a chance to see the after? Couldn’t she stay up past her bedtime just one night a week? (As a side note: Lisa was a pretty great roommate. My only complaints about her are that she wouldn’t watch the end of Intervention with me and she had the willpower to eat only one cookie per day out of a huge bag in the freezer.)
Families impacted by dementia are often caught up in the before-and-after. There are the years before dementia. Then there’s the after. Everyone with dementia is different, and dementia affects everyone in a different way. But there’s no doubt that the after is not the same as the before. (A person with Alzheimer’s once said to me, “I’m still me but I’m a different me.”)
When I meet someone with dementia that has progressed past the earlier stages, I notice that their family often needs to tell me about the before. Maybe she used to be a successful real estate agent who could sell any house in a week. Maybe he was a teacher who touched a thousand lives. Maybe he was a cop or a firefighter who selflessly served his community. Maybe she made the absolute best apple pies on the face of the earth.
And I always listen when they tell me about the before. There is value in knowing about the before. It helps us to connect with an individual with dementia when we know where they’ve been, but I feel like the family is sometimes telling us this for a different reason. They are telling us about the before because the after isn’t enough. They want us to understand that this person is more than what we see in front of us.
I once met a woman with Alzheimer’s who had been a fantastic golfer. She and her husband traveled around the country playing in golf tournaments. Her family told me that she had been incredibly competitive…to the point where she would trash talk other female golfers. Her kids told me that she didn’t make a lot of friends on the golf course, but she won a lot of huge trophies which now decorated her room at the memory care community as reminder of her before. She once told an employee that she won all the trophies for having the largest cow at the state fair. Obviously, they didn’t hold the same meaning to her that they did to her family. They were a before thing. She was in the after.
As her Alzheimer’s progressed, she could no longer go out and play nine holes of golf. Her kids started taking her to the driving range until she was unable to do that. After she moved into memory care, a creative staff member went to Walmart and bought a few items so they could set up a mini-golf course in the hallway. The woman lit up like the staff had not seen before. The ball never went in the hole, but she would putt up and down the hallway for hours.
The staff expected her family to be excited when they arrived and saw how much fun she was having. They were not excited. In fact, they were angry and saddened. They thought it was demeaning that a woman who had once been a competitive golfer was now aimlessly pushing a wiffle ball up and down the hallway with a plastic golf club. They were caught up in comparing the before to the after.
I realized recently that my love of the before-and-after does not extend to working with individuals with dementia. It’s not that I don’t care about the before. It’s fun to hear about a person’s past, and the before holds some keys to what might work when you try to improve the qualify of life for someone with dementia. Most importantly, no one wants their life to be forgotten. We want to know that people will remember what we did and how we did it. We want to know that what we’ve done has been meaningful and worthy of remembering–especially if don’t remember it ourselves.
Although we should remember the before, we also need to let go of it. If we don’t let go of the before, we can’t appreciate the after. This is easier for a professional caregiver than a family caregiver. Professional caregivers don’t have a before in their mind when they work with someone who has dementia. Family caregivers often can’t get the before out of their mind.