A Word on Finding Your Thing from Dementialand

This post isn’t really about dementia.

It’s mostly about me, and it’s mostly for my college students.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken at two Alzheimer’s caregiving conferences. I got to present on dementia at an event for long term care social workers in my state. I did a training for case managers at an area agency on aging. And tomorrow I’m coordinating an event to bring a woman with younger onset dementia to campus to share her experiences. (Also, if you read my blog last week, I’m excited to tell you that it sounds like I might be headed to the Motherhouse–yep, that’s what it’s called–to educate individuals who care for aging nuns.) I have a few emails in my inbox from people inviting me to come speak or do a training for them. I need to look at my calendar and see which ones will work.

I’m not saying this to be braggy or arrogant. I actually wish there was less demand for my skills because, although I’m fortunate that the university has allowed dementia outreach and education to be a part of my position, it’s only a small portion of my job. I have no doubt it could keep me busy 40 hours a week. And that’s not a good thing. I wish there was no dementia at all.

When I look back on my career, I’ve done a few things right (and a few things wrong–but that can be another blog post). One of the things I’ve done right is to identify a tremendous need in an area where many other people have little interest and to pursue that area with my whole heart. When I started doing programs to educate people about dementia, I figured there must be a lot of people out there doing similar presentations, but when you consider the number of people with dementia, there really aren’t….

By necessity, we have lots of people, paid and unpaid, caring for people with dementia. We have few people educating those caregivers. The more programs, trainings, seminars, and conference presentations I provide, the more I realize that I’m not doing anything that someone else couldn’t do. I learn about dementia (from research articles, from books, from people living with dementia, from conferences, even from my own empirical work). I repackage what I learn. If it’s boring, I try to find a way to explain it in a way that is interesting. I regurgitate it in a way that is easily digestible. When possible, I throw in some jokes to keep people’s attention.

As a faculty member at a regional comprehensive university, I often have opportunities to visit with college students about majors, careers, and their future plans. I don’t expect them to know what they want to do with their lives at age 18. In fact, I worry about the incoming freshmen who are absolutely set on a career path.

I spend a lot of time talking with college students about not what they should pursue, but rather how they should determine what they should pursue. In my opinion, college isn’t about getting A’s. College is about finding your thing.

Based on my career experience, here is my advice for college students:

Step 1: Find something you like doing that other people either aren’t doing or don’t like doing. (Example: “You like spending time with people who have Alzheimer’s? Isn’t that depressing? Isn’t it hard being around people who might die soon?”)

Step 2: Learn everything about this area. Learn so much that you can’t help but annoy your friends and family by being able to apply anything you experience to your area of interest. (Example: “Every time I fly I can’t help but think about how non dementia-friendly air travel is.”) Be able to give a two minute speech about your thing and why it’s important in the world. Don’t be deterred if people in your life ignore you or roll their eyes. Be unapologetic about being a nerd.

Step 3: Become really good at what you do. The better you become at your thing, the more you love it…because we love things when we are good at them. (Example: There’s a reason I enjoy giving lectures on dementia. On most days, I’m pretty good at it. There’s a reason I don’t like putting together furniture. I usually mess it up. Messing stuff up isn’t fun. Doing well is fun.)

Step 4: Understand that to keep doing something you love, you might have to do things you don’t love. You can minimize those things but never completely eliminate them. Deal with it. No one likes everything about their job all the time. Don’t let your distaste for a smaller piece of your job mess with your opportunity to do your thing. (Example: I have to write reports on our programs for the university. It’s not my favorite, but I’ll do it because I have to do it to keep doing my thing.)

I’d like to say that I followed that advice when it comes to my own career,  but that would be giving myself too much credit. Rather, this is based on hindsight. I can identify what I did right–even if my actions were less than deliberate.

This weekend I found myself in Minneapolis for work and ended up at the Mall of America. While my friend and colleague Kristin went to Justice, a store that is both confusing and frightening to childless gerontologists, to buy her daughter leggings, I went to the makeup megastore Sephora to see if I could find mascara that wouldn’t make my eyelashes look clumpy.

I encountered a saleswoman who loved mascara and knew more about it than anyone I had ever met. Did I want my lashes to look super glossy? Did I want them to look longer? Curlier? Thicker? Then she reviewed with me the various types of brushes that come with different mascaras because the effect of mascara is a dependent on both the product and how it is applied to the lashes. Who knew? I now think of mascara in a completely different way. And I bought a $28 mascara that she recommended. Yes, I spent $28 on a Lancôme mascara. So far, it was totally worth it. I credit her knowledge and enthusiasm. Mascara is her thing, and she is the best at it.

Do your thing. Be the best at it.

Someone recently asked me if I was worried we would find cures for various types of dementia and I’d have nothing to do.

No. Dementia is fascinating to me, but the most fascinating piece will be learning how we finally end it.

I can always find a new thing. Return to step 1. It’s never too late to go back to step 1.





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