Setting Yourself Up for Success in Dementialand

In 2006, my husband Bill and I adopted a dog. Although Bill had dogs as kid, Gus-Gus (a kind of ugly but endearing rat terrier mix) was my first dog. He was no longer a puppy when I started thinking about signing up for obedience classes. I asked the teacher, Connie, if she thought it was “too late.” I had no idea how this dog training thing worked.

She told me, “Oh, we’re not really training the dog anyway, so it doesn’t matter how old he is. We’re training YOU.”

After starting the classes, I understood what she meant. Whenever I would complain about something Gus-Gus was doing “wrong,” she would point out how I wasn’t setting him up for success. According to Connie, Gus-Gus never messed up, but Elaine did. When he wasn’t well-behaved, I was failing to set him up for success.

A woman in the class had a goldendoodle who had freaked out at the farmer’s market and knocked over a whole table of vegetables. The women came to class the next week complaining that her dog was “wild.” Connie told her that she had failed to set the dog up for success. You don’t take an anxious, reactive, food-motivated goldendoodle to the farmer’s market and expect good results. You’re not placing him in an environment where he’s likely to succeed.

Although Gus-Gus has many great qualities as a dog, he does have a flaw. He doesn’t do well with children. He’s never bitten a kid or anything like that, but he’s obviously uncomfortable around them. If there are kids playing in front of our house, he barks at them. We once noticed he was doing this very low-grade growl while a diaper commercial was on TV. Since we don’t have kids, this is an issue we’ve been able to work around.

When we were house hunting this spring, there was a place I liked quite a bit. Amazing wood floors. Nice touches in the bathroom. Perfect layout for us. And then we looked out the back door. About five feet beyond our property line was an impressive park, complete with slides and monkey bars. This may have been perfect for another family, but I knew that this wasn’t the house for us. Putting Gus-Gus in this environment would not be setting him up for success. We crossed it off the list. (Yes, we took our dogs’ needs very much into account while house shopping. Feel free to judge.)

You probably think that I am going to make a leap from talking about dogs to people with dementia, and you might be prepared to call me out on this comparison. However, I’m going to outdo myself here and compare dogs to all of us, not just those with dementia. And, I’m going to start with college students.

I am a college professor, and I’ve started telling students to set themselves up for success. I don’t tell them I stole the phrase from the lady who taught the obedience class. Now, college students differ in some ways from dogs. One way they differ is that dogs must rely on others to set them up for success. College students should take responsibility for setting themselves up for success.

I was working with a student in setting up her schedule for the upcoming semester. In her program of study, she would need to take four business classes total. She had made it clear to me that she was concerned that these classes would be pretty rough for her. I looked at the draft of her schedule and realized she had three business classes listed.

“Why do you want to take three business classes at once when you could spread them out?” I asked her.

“I hate them and I want to get as many of them out of the way as possible,” she told me. We talked about the pros and cons of doing this. In the end, she decided to take three of the business classes in the same semester. I wasn’t sure it was the right call, but I encouraged her to make her own decision.

She came to my office hours after classes started. She was getting Ds in all three of her business classes. I asked her why she thought she wasn’t doing well.

“I just really suck at this business stuff,” she told me.

“Maybe you don’t suck that bad at the business stuff,” I responded. (Yeah, I know that I have a way with words.) “Maybe you failed to set yourself up for success by taking three at once.”

Here’s the issue with not setting yourself up for success…You lose confidence. If she had taken one business class at a time and done okay it, she might have realized that she wasn’t all that bad at business courses. Instead, she had decided she was worse than she thought.

Among my college students, I see students with 3.9 GPAs and students with 1.8 GPAs. I find that the 3.9 students aren’t always smarter. Sometimes they are just better at putting the odds in their favor and giving themselves every advantage to succeed.

I know someone who is not a morning person but signed up for a 5:00 am fitness class. When she didn’t go regularly, she told me that she just wasn’t able to commit to an exercise program. I’m not so sure that’s really the problem. Maybe she just didn’t set herself up for success. Can she find a class over the lunch hour? Or after work?

If I think about my “wins” in life, I can’t say I owe a lot to being hard-working, bright, or even motivated. I owe a lot to having an ability to set myself up for success. I wrote my dissertation in a timely fashion. It’s not because I’m incredibly smart or diligent. I think it’s mostly due to the fact that I had the forethought to cancel cable for the months I was finishing it. I set myself up for success on that one. (To be fair, I could also give you at least 77 examples of times I didn’t set myself up for success…like the time I had too much Riesling the night before a 20-mile marathon training run and had to bail at mile three….)

Now the jump to Dementialand….

As I mentioned, dogs need someone to set them up for success. College students–including those working on their dissertations–need to take responsibility for doing it themselves. Sometimes people with dementia can set themselves up for success, and sometimes they need a little guidance.

I met with a woman this week whose husband has Alzheimer’s and is struggling in public settings. He gets frustrated that others are being loud to the point that he’s gone over to diners at restaurants and suggested that they keep it down—even when they’re not really being loud. She tells him that he needs to calm down. Then, not surprisingly, he gets annoyed with her.

It’s not a great dining experience for either of him. Yet, they keep going out to eat and the pattern keeps repeating itself. She said they’ve had to ask for their food to-go several times because he has what she calls a meltdown. And then she confessed that she feels like having a meltdown because it’s such a disaster.

I explained to her a bit about how the dementia brain struggles to process lots of stimuli at once. In short, there is just too much going on for her husband to negotiate. His brain gets tired of working that hard, and he gets frustrated. He’s being put in an environment that is not a fit for him. In other words, he’s not being set up for success. What could be done differently to set him up for success? Could they eat out at an “off” time when the restaurant isn’t busy? Could they ask to be seated in a quieter area of the restaurant? Could they get take-out and go to a park?

I have seen plenty of examples of how people with dementia are capable of more than we think…if they are set up for success. I know a guy with dementia who was able to keep his job for several years after diagnosis because his employer was willing to set him up for success by modifying his work environment and job duties. A friend of mine with early onset Alzheimer’s started becoming anxious at the grocery store. It was “too much, too many choices, too many people.” She set herself up for success by shopping for food basics at the gas station/convenience store. It was smaller and less overwhelming. Her kids were able to go to the “big” grocery store when she needed specialty items.

A woman I know has learned that her husband with dementia can still brush his teeth–but only if she sets him up for success by leaving his toothbrush out for him. She also knows that he enjoys running errands with her, but if she asks him to go on a day when he’s tired, she’s not setting him up for success.

I have to admit that when I first meet someone with dementia, I take a mental snapshot of where they are at on their journey and what they may (or may not) be capable of doing. However, they are often able to exceed what I perceive as their limitations. I find that those who are able to surpass what I thought they were capable of are those who are able to set themselves up for success and have loved ones who support and participate in this effort. I should know not to make judgments about people’s abilities. I miss the mark a lot.

Yet, the more I think about it, that’s true of life in general…whether you live in Dementialand or not.

As for Gus-Gus, we still work on setting him up for success, even though he’s almost 10 years old now. That means if you bring your kids over, he’ll just hang out in the basement.

4 thoughts on “Setting Yourself Up for Success in Dementialand

  1. Elaine, thank you for this story. I have EOAD and I struggle with some of these “anxious moments” daily and weekly. You brought to light, in an easy to understand way, our dementia-related incidents. Thanks again.


    1. Thank you for reading and for your thoughts! One of my goals is to help people who have no experience with dementia get a little bit of a feel for what it is like…so I think it helps if I can relate it to things that they might have experienced.


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