The Prime Time in Dementialand (and Why You Don’t Want to Listen to Me Lecture at 2pm)

When I was a teenager, my mom bought me a nightshirt that said “Perky Morning People Should be Shot” across the front. Looking back, that statement was a bit harsh, but I often threw a fit (aimed at my mother) about having to get up early in the morning. And I wore that nightshirt until I was about 25…until it was virtually transparent.

Despite my allegiance to that nightshirt, I can’t say I’m not a morning person. I don’t enjoy having to get up at 5 am, but I’m most productive in the mid-morning (from 8 to 11ish). If I have important work to do, I try to structure my day to get it done in that time frame. When possible, this is when I teach my college courses. I also attempt to schedule important meetings around this time. (And, in case you were wondering, my blog posts are on scheduled released. I’ve talked to a few people recently who were impressed that I was up at the crack of dawn doing my blog. Nope. I’ve usually fast asleep when my blog posts are released.)

I’m also can’t say I’m not a night person. I’m definitely not an owl who stays up ridiculously late, but in many ways I feel my best at night. I do my best writing in the later evening (from 9 to 11ish). I feel most creative in this time frame. I’m usually happiest at night as well. If you want something from me and want to make sure I’m in a good mood when you ask, try 9 pm.

What I am not is an afternoon person. For as long as I can remember, I’ve disliked afternoons. My complaints about the evils of afternoons are many…For instance, I struggle to concentrate and lack motivation. I don’t have much patience in the afternoon. I am much more likely to be annoyed by something inconsequential in the afternoon than at any other time. I also have more anxiety in the afternoon than in the morning or evening–although I’ve never figured out why.

I’ve tried various strategies to change this, including going to bed earlier and changing what and when I eat. To be honest, I’ve tried consuming large and potentially hazardous amounts of caffeine. (In fact, I’ve tried everything short of illegal drugs to increase my energy in the afternoon.) Those things do make a small difference, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just never going to be at my best in the afternoon. Trust me…you don’t want to have to listen to me lecture at 2 pm. I’ll get through it if I have to, but I’m not as “on” as I am at 9 am.

A couple of years ago I was making plans to work with a colleague on a project that involved a lot of tedious data and a few statistical methods that we had both learned in grad school but rarely used. I asked what time we should get together.

“Let’s do late morning,” she said, “That’s my prime time.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by prime time, so I asked. She explained to me that her prime time was the time of day when she felt sharpest, and she tried to schedule her most taxing tasks in her prime time. I’m not sure why, but it had never occurred to me until this moment that I could (and should) try to schedule my day around my “best” times when I could. (I’m fortunate to have a job with some flexibility that allows me to do this, and I know not everyone is as lucky.)

If you think about your day, there are probably a couple of “pockets” of time when you feel best. Maybe you’re happiest and most productive in the early morning. Maybe you don’t really wake up until noon. Perhaps you’re the type of person who thrives late at night after most of the world has gone to bed.

A few websites suggest that you can start a spreadsheet to track your energy and mood throughout the day in order to figure out when you’re at your best. However, I would argue that if you have to collect data to figure this out you probably don’t need to worry about it much. Without a chart, I can tell you that I’m pretty lackluster in the afternoon.

No one is at their best all the time.

That includes people with dementia. Individuals who have dementia may see the patterns they have experienced their whole lives exemplified. Or the patterns may change. Either way, the patterns become more important. And structuring one’s day around these patterns, and a person’s “prime time” becomes more key to quality of life.

Recently I talked to a woman, Heidi, whose husband has Alzheimer’s. She told me that they took a trip to Hawaii, which had always been a special place for them as a couple. I asked how it had gone.

“Not good,” she said. “Not good at all.”

Heidi told me that her first mistake was booking a flight that left at 6 am. Her husband had never been a morning person, and he struggled even more with mornings after his diagnosis. Getting out of bed before the sun came up seemed to increase his confusion. He kept forgetting where they were going and didn’t believe Heidi when she repeatedly told him about the trip. He even asked a flight attendant where the plane was going and doubted her answer. The combination of traveling and being up early made for an awful experience–for them both.

Heidi’s husband also struggled with the tours and planned events on their vacation. He was used to “downtime” at certain points during the day. One day they were on a bus tour (at a time when he would typically be sitting on the couch watching TV) when he become confused and panicked. They had to get off the bus and call a cab to get back to the hotel.

Heidi realized that maybe the trip itself had just been too much for him, but she also realized that she could have been more sensitive to his prime time when she planned. She assumed he’d be able to adjust. He would have been able to adjust a few years back, but she had to admit that his prime time had become important to the success of their activities.

And what about those with dementia who must adjust to life at a nursing home?

You won’t hear me knocking nursing homes as a whole. I know that there are great nursing homes, and there are not-so-great nursing homes–to put it nicely. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever met work in nursing homes. But there are a lot of downfalls to institutional living…

Although we are trending (too slowly) toward more individualized care, life at most nursing homes is quite scheduled. Meals are offered at certain times. You are expected to get up and go to bed at certain times. Activities are on the calendar. These events are often not dictated by an individual’s preferences but by the convenience of the facility. And this is not a criticism of facilities…they are usually understaffed and attempt to plan in the most efficient way for all. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes about the greater good rather than the well-being of one individual.

However, attempting to adjust to this schedule can be hard for people with dementia. In fact, it would be difficult for anyone. I know plenty of people of all ages who enjoy sleeping in…but how does that work with the schedule at a nursing home? And what about night owls? How can you stay up and watch TV when your roommate goes to bed at 7 pm? As a professed afternoon-hater, I worry that all the best activities might happen in the afternoon when I would prefer them in the morning. Individuals with dementia may struggle to make these adjustments–even more than the rest of us.

To function in the “normal” world, we are forced to play by the rules. I sometimes have important meetings at 2 pm. When I have to do reports at work, I may only have an afternoon time slot to get them done. That’s the way life is, and I adjust. After all, I’d like to keep my job.

However, adjustments may be more difficult for those with dementia. Someone who struggles with having a conversation may do well when they have visitors during their prime time but find conversation more taxing at a different time of day. If Grandma wants to go grocery shopping but sometimes finds it overwhelming, it may be useful to make sure she goes during her prime time. And if Mom typically takes a nap in the afternoon, it might not be best to plan the family Christmas celebration at 3 pm.

It sounds simple, and it is–really. If you are a professional or family caregiver, help people with dementia create schedules that work with (not against) their prime time. Be conscious of times when people may not be at their best. Consider the individual’s priorities and assist them in managing their time in a way that uses their best moments to maximize those priorities.

And do the same for yourself.

4 thoughts on “The Prime Time in Dementialand (and Why You Don’t Want to Listen to Me Lecture at 2pm)

  1. couldn’t agree more-been an RN for 50+ years most with elderly. Changes are so slow even when they are for the best.


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