Knowing Better and Doing Better in Dementialand

I am driving a couple hours to southern Iowa to present at a community center. It’s a drive full of soybean fields, cornfields, and an occasional Casey’s Convenience Store. I’m listening to a Spotify playlist including (embarrassingly) artists such as Flo Rida, Salt-N-Pepa, Tracy Chapman, the Jayhawks, and the Jackson 5. There may or may not be one, and only one, Justin Bieber song.

I’m not sure if there will be fifteen people or a hundred at this deal. I’m not even really sure exactly what I’m going to talk about. I don’t know if most of my audience will have experience with dementia or have shown up because they saw a flyer and didn’t have anything better to do on a Tuesday night.

When I arrive, the woman who invited me to speak gives me a BP gift card and a small loaf of homemade zucchini bread. (I will later eat 3/4 of the bread on the drive home when I realize the Subway in this town closes at 9pm.) About 70 people show up, and they are overly thankful that I’ve made the trip. My audience is seated in folding chairs. I am at a podium on a stage. One woman tells me that her granddaughter was in a dance recital on the very same stage over the weekend. I tell her that’s a hard act to follow.

I give what I call my “Dementia 101” info. Then I do a little role play and demonstration to show how to approach and communicate with people who are in the later stages of dementia. My crowd is fantastic. They laugh at all the appropriate times. No one’s cell phone rings. Sometimes when I do public speaking I feel like I’m on my game (I could also write multiple blog posts about when I’m not on my game), and tonight I’m on my game.

An older woman sitting in the back row asks a lot of questions during my presentation. They’re good questions. They are questions that only someone caring with a loved one who has dementia asks.

How do you know when it’s time to take someone to a nursing home?

What do you do when someone with dementia tries to take their clothes off in public? (When she asks this question, a few people in the front row turn around to look at her.)

Should you take someone off their dementia medication, like Namenda, when they are in the end stages?

What’s the best way to handle it when they don’t know who you are anymore?

How do you feel about feeding tubes when people stop eating at the end of life? (The first words out of my mouth are “Not good.”)

I do my best to address her questions. To be honest, I think I do a pretty good job providing her with some options and ideas that might be effective.

After I get done with my presentation, several people come up front and form a line to chat with me. For experience, I know that listening to these people’s stories will take almost as long as my presentation itself. This is the reason by husband knows to expect me home at 11 when I say I’ll be home by 10.

The woman from the back row is in line. When she gets her chance to talk to me, she has a few more questions. Again, they are good questions. She wants to know what a person should tell their grandchildren about why grandpa doesn’t know who they are. She asks why people with dementia may not be able to sit up straight, why they slump in their wheelchairs, and what you can do to get them to sit up when they won’t. Then she wants to know if people in end stage dementia should just be left alone when they lie with their eyes closed and refuse to open them–or if it’s okay to shake them just a little to get them to open their eyes.

I do my best, but I admit I don’t have all the answers. Maybe I really don’t have any answers, just some thoughts and ideas based on my experiences. She thanks me for making the drive and tells me to watch out for deer on the way home. And then she says something that makes my heart leap to my throat.

“My husband died from Alzheimer’s a few months ago,” she confides. “Now I know all the mistakes I’ve made. I had no idea about all this stuff.”

She says this in a way that is matter-of-fact and not bitter. However, it stings me. I thought I was giving her helpful advice, whereas I was actually unintentionally pointing out her mistakes. She manages a smile and walks away.

I turn my attention to the next person in the line, but something nags at me. A part of me wants to catch the woman as she walks out of the community center. I have no idea what to say when I catch her, and I’m not sure if she’d want to be caught. I let her go.

On the way home, I think about the woman. She’s weighing so heavily on my mind that I don’t think to start my Spotify playlist until half an hour into the drive. My favorite Maya Angelou quote keeps coming to mind:

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

It’s something I tell myself a lot when I think about my own professional and personal life. When things go wrong, it’s often because I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to do better. (Of course, there are those times I mess up even though I do know better.) I also use this quote a lot with my college students. You didn’t know better. Now you know better. Don’t screw it up again. 

The reason the quote keeps coming to mind is that, in this particular case, it doesn’t work. The woman doesn’t have another chance. She did the best she could with the knowledge she had. She probably wouldn’t admit it, but she probably did okay. Yet now she has more information….because for better or worse I gave her more information. Now she knows better, but she can’t do better. It’s too late.

If I had known her husband was dead, I might have answered her questions differently. I’m not sure exactly how…but I might have at least changed my delivery even if I didn’t change my content. I wish I had known. There’s no real way I should’ve known, of course, but I wish I had.

I have to wonder if she made the right call by coming to listen to me speak. I’ll probably never know.

Maybe it’s better to think you did your best and not realize there’s more you could have done.






5 thoughts on “Knowing Better and Doing Better in Dementialand

  1. Elaine, another heartfelt blog. Your insight is, well, insightful. Who would know who was in the audience? You couldn’t know. The message you shared was for those interested in the topic. If the message hit close to home to an attendee then it was their journey, not yours.
    Keep up your great work with the old folks. Denise


  2. Elaine, all I could think while reading this was how grateful the other people in the room must have been to hear this woman’s questions. They will need the answers you gave. In her case, the answers came too late (perhaps), but for everyone else, those answers are going to be incredibly valuable. She gave everyone a gift by asking what she did, and you did the right think by answering honestly. I can imagine how painful it was to realize that her chance to “do better” with her husband had passed, but I still think you served her and everyone in the room well. Just my perspective as a caregiver!

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  3. Made me cry, as well. We put such a burden of perfection on ourselves, as caregivers, along with feeling like we’re responsible for so much that’s really beyond our control. Thank you for this powerful piece.


  4. This post brought tears to my eyes. Probably every caregiver is overly hard on themselves. We strive to do the best we can, but sometimes even our best efforts are not enough. I love what you are saying about “do the best you can, and when you know better, do better”. It gives us permission to be human.

    It is an evolving intelligence, as we wade through the drama of caring for someone with dementia. Constantly learning from our experiences as well as from each other. Thanks, Elaine, for another great post that contributes to our coping skills when caring for someone with cognitive impairment.

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