Whack-A-Mole and Tongues in Dementialand

A friend of mine, who is engaged to be married, once referred to conversations with her future mother-in-law as games of Whack-A-Mole. I remember being a huge Whack-A-Mole fan when I’d visit Chuck E. Cheese as a kid. Little toy moles would pop up in random patterns and I’d have to respond by hitting them with a mallot. My friend considered her future mother-in-law’s questions and topics of conversation to be so random and unexpected that they were like those little moles popping up.

I could use the same analogy for some of my friends with dementia. Their questions, comments, and subjects of conversation aren’t always predictable. As someone who gets sick of bland and boring small talk (“Hi, how are you?” “Fine, how are you?” “Good.”), I’ll take the refreshing Whack-A-Mole conversation anytime.

I was walking out of a nursing home last week and passed an older man who appeared to be sleeping in his wheelchair. When I walked by, he opened his eyes.

Without pause, he said to me, “I know a lot about tongues.” Yep. It was a Whack-A-Mole conversation, and I was all in.

“I’ve always wanted to meet a tongue expert,” I said without missing a beat.

And he was more than willing to teach me about tongues. First, he told me to open my mouth and show him my tongue. I obliged.

“Yes, that is a good one,” he told me. I was strangely proud. He continued talking about tongues. My tongue. His tongue. Tongues in general.

Here is what I learned about the tongue:

You might think that the tongue is a single muscle (I did), but it’s actually made up of eight muscles. In fact, you can think of it as a “little bag of muscles.” If people have bad breath, it is often because of bacteria on their tongue. Taste buds aren’t just on your tongue. They are also on the roof of your mouth and other places “around in there.” The average tongue is 10 centimeters long (but this guy said he had measured his a few years ago and it wasn’t quite that long). It’s hard to get an accurate measure of a tongue because of the gag reflex. A human tongue print is as unique as a fingerprint. Cats have special tongues that are rough so that they can be used for cleaning, but their tongues also pick up a lot of debris which is why they get hairballs. Oh, and people can get tongue cancer. He knows several men–but no women–who have had tongue cancer.

After the tongue lecture, I asked him, “How do you know so much about tongues?”

He pointed to his forehead, and his eyes lit up.

“Encyclopedia!” he exclaimed. And then he used his feet to turn his wheelchair around and headed off in the opposite direction.

I was left standing there watching him as he slowly moved down the hallway.

When I got home that night, I got on my laptop and Googled “interesting facts about tongues.” I realized that everything he told me about tongues was, in fact, credible. I hadn’t doubted him. It’s just that I’d given so little thought to tongues in the past.

I read an article on gratefulness while I was waiting in the doctor’s office a few weeks back. The article suggested identifying at least one “highlight” of the day when you go to bed each night. This is something that would usually make me roll my eyes, but I’ve been doing it. No matter how good, bad, or neutral my day was, I force myself to think about one positive thing that happened as I get ready for bed.

On this particular night, I thought to myself, I learned a lot about tongues today.






3 thoughts on “Whack-A-Mole and Tongues in Dementialand

  1. There is a resident at my mom’s facility who speaks only Japanese. I’m not sure of her past, but no one in her family speaks anything but English. However, she communicates through body language so well that almost everyone truly can understand her. Her closest friend is nonverbal, in fact. It’s amazing!


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