What You Do For Friends in Dementialand (aka What I Learned From My 5th Grade Teacher Mr. V)

Flashback. I am in the 5th grade at Mulberry Elementary School. There is a girl in my class who I will call Mindy. Mindy has special needs. She’s very sweet but doesn’t quite fit in as hard as she tries. She’s obsessed with Iowa Hawkeye football and never misses a game on TV. One weekend, she gets to go to a game. It’s a really big deal for her.

The Monday after the game, my teacher (Mr. V as we call him) does something that I haven’t forgotten. He asks Mindy to run an errand to the school office. While she is gone, he tells us that when Mindy returns he will ask her to tell us all about the Hawkeye game.

“I know that many of you have been to lots of Hawkeye games, so it may not seem like a big deal to you, but this is a BIG deal to her,” he tells us while Mindy is out of the room. “So when she talks about it, you will be excited. It’s just what you do for a friend.”

He specifically says you will be excited. He doesn’t say you will try to be excited. He doesn’t say you will pretend to be excited. He says you will be excited. Instead of questioning whether or not a person could actually be excited just because they are told to do so, I tell myself I must be excited. I’m an obedient child and I put a lot of energy into my efforts to impress my teacher. (Yep. I was that kid.)

That was more than 25 years ago. And the lesson stuck.

I went to New York City with my friend Holly a few years ago. Holly was an art history major in college and was excited to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art on our trip. I hate to admit this, but I appreciate art about as much as I enjoy eating cat food. My previous visits to art museums included me stomping around and pouting like a small child who had their candy stash raided…and that was when I was in my late 20’s.

But this was going to be different. I was going to be excited to go to the museum….because Holly was excited. And it’s just what you do for a friend.

Here’s the funny thing. At first, I was faking it. I was pretending to be interested. I was trying to not spoil Holly’s fun by acting like someone was sticking needles in my eyes. At some point, my fake excitement morphed into real excitement. As we left the museum, Holly bought me a large soft pretzel from a cart on the street and I had to admit it had been a pretty good afternoon.

And I wasn’t just saying that so she didn’t feel bad for subjecting me to the museum. I realized my interest in art had gone from a 2 out of 10 to maybe a 5 or 6 out of 10. (Of course, my favorite piece of art in our home is STILL the print of four dogs playing pool with a cat dartboard behind them. It’s not as tacky as it sounds, really.)

We typically think that we act more enthusiastically about something if we are more enthusiastic about it. However, I also think we become more enthusiastic about something if we act more enthusiastically. Our actions may follow our feelings, but our feelings also follow our actions.

Every month, I visit a memory care community where a woman with dementia greets me. She’s always sitting in the lobby with a Christmas fleece blanket on her lap. Every time I walk in (at least for the last six months), she exclaims, “Did you hear I have a new grandbaby?”

I don’t know this for sure, but I’d guess she says that to every single person who walks through those doors during the day. I would assume she did have a new grandbaby at some point in her past. Maybe that grandbaby is my age now. I have no idea. And it doesn’t matter.

She’s excited. That excitement is rooted in her reality. Even though she may not have a new grandbaby, I get excited to talk to her. My excitement is genuine, whether or not her grandbaby is.

A woman recently told me that her mother, who has dementia, often talks about how she won the Powerball. Of course, her mother didn’t really win the Powerball. However, the woman told me that her mother is so jazzed about winning that it makes everyone around her happy. It seems irrelevant that 2.3 million dollars isn’t coming her way. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

As the woman was leaving her mom’s nursing home room one day, a staff member said to her, “It always makes my day when your mom wins the Powerball! I hope she wins again tomorrow!”

I spend a lot of time being excited about stuff that is rooted in the reality of people who have dementia rather than rooted in my own reality. But why is their reality any less worthy of being celebrated than my reality?

A couple weeks ago, a women with dementia told me that her cat had a litter of 102 kittens. I know the woman has not been out of the nursing home for a year, and I know cats don’t have litters of kittens that large. Still, I found myself getting genuinely excited as we chatted about the kittens. I asked her to tell me more about the kittens. She said most of the them were green and they were all healthy.

“Green? Are you kidding me? They sound adorable!” I said.

“Well, it’s amazing what they do these days,” she told me, shaking her head incredulously. “People can just do it all. You never can tell what color it’s all gonna turn out.”

As I left the nursing home that day, I realized hearing about this exceedingly large, amazingly healthy, and colorful litter of kittens had made my afternoon.

When we care about someone, we get excited when they get excited. It doesn’t matter if what they are excited about isn’t really in our wheelhouse. It doesn’t matter if it’s rooted in our reality. It doesn’t even matter if it doesn’t make sense.

It’s just what you do for a friend.

7 thoughts on “What You Do For Friends in Dementialand (aka What I Learned From My 5th Grade Teacher Mr. V)

  1. That was entertaining as well as being all too true. My Dad, who is 79 and is supposed to have Alzheimer’s, argues with the folks on the home shopping network. He’s not sure how they do it, but he is positive that they can see and hear him. On Monday night I heard him tell “them” that his son already had one of those (whatever it was) and so he would not be buying one and he changed the channel. He also thinks the women on the home shopping network are flirting with him, which I believe is the main reason that he watches it.

    This and one other channel effect him that way. He gets positively animated when he watches the city council meetings on public access. He is sure he is at the meeting and not just watching it on TV. When I try to talk to him, he will actually shoosh me and advise that I should not interrupt the meeting.

    Initially I tried to explain that millions of people were seeing the same thing and that they could not see or hear him, but I had to back off of that. If he wants to believe it’s real and they can see and hear him, that’s fine with me. It does not seem to effect his other abilities. He can mow the lawn like a champ and he loves doing it. He still goes to church and he still drives with the doctor’s permission to about 5 places. His driving skills are intact. I just worry that one day he will get lost. He has done really well considering that his diagnosis was over 5 years ago. He does not seem to be tracking like an Alzheimer’s victim. I find myself wondering if it’s possible he has some other kind of dementia.

    Well, thanks for listening. Got to go to work now! I will keep reading


  2. Well, you just made my day! I was in a total grumble, waking up to my caregiving reality, and the ipad dinged, and there was this perfect message. Thank you, thank you!!

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