Being Right, Being Wrong, and Doing Your Best in Dementialand

Let me tell you a story. This story does not have prescribed lesson. And I’m not going to tell you who is right and who is wrong—because I really don’t know.

Melissa (not her real name) was a college student in our program several years ago. She was doing a service-learning project at a local memory care community. One of her tasks, as assigned by staff, was to accompany Edie (spoiler alert: also not her real name) to the beauty shop.

Edie was a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. I did not realize it at the time, but her deceased husband had been a wealthy entrepreneur in our community. Throughout her life, she hung out with movers and shakers in town. She and her husband were generous with both their time and money. They were respected and well-connected.

All I knew at the time was that Edie hated going to the beauty shop that was part of her memory care community.

She didn’t understand why this woman she didn’t recognize was messing with her head. She didn’t get why someone was holding a pair scissors (which she perceived as knives) to her head. And she repeatedly told the woman to “F*** off and put down those knives!”

The hairstylist wasn’t offended. Working in this environment meant learning to roll with the punches. The bigger issue was that, despite the hairstylist’s best intentions, Edie would get more and more agitated the longer she sat in the chair. Sometimes she’d curse. Sometimes she’d cry. Occasionally, she would even shake.

And that’s where Melissa came in. She would be responsible for comforting Edie and “managing” her visits to the stylist. It wasn’t just a monthly cut. It was a visit every Friday–sometimes color, sometimes a perm, sometimes a trim. And her family also had her nails done regularly, which was almost as anxiety-provoking. Melissa was a reassuring (if not familiar) face in the midst of a terrifying experience. Even though Edie didn’t seem to remember Melissa, they somehow connected.

After a couple months of this, Melissa showed up in my office. I’ve had some angry students in my office over the past 10 years, but I think she wins the prize for the angriest. Melissa couldn’t understand why Edie’s family was insisting that she spend so much time at the salon when the salon was “hell” for Edie.

I didn’t know either. And, at the time, I was 100% Team Melissa. I could see no excuse for putting Edie through such trauma.

I encouraged Melissa to see if she might be able to talk to Edie’s family. I assumed that if the family understood the extent of how stressed Edie was by getting her hair and nails done, they would forget the whole thing–or at least minimize her visits. Maybe my suggestion that Melissa talk to Edie’s family was a good one…maybe it wasn’t.

Melissa took my advice. She called Edie’s daughter, who explained–not so calmly–that she had promised her mother that she would make sure she would always be “done up” and “looking like herself” for visitors. The daughter also told Melissa that Edie had spent a lot of time maintaining her looks. Her mantra had been “look good, feel good.” Also, she pointed out, Edie may not like the visits to the salon, but she’d be horrified if she looked in the mirror and didn’t look like Edie. That, the daughter said, would throw her into a panic.

In short, Edie’s daughter was not thrilled a college student had called her out on her decision-making.

“You don’t know what this is like, so keep your thoughts to yourself,” the daughter said.

Melissa responded, “And you don’t know what it’s like for her at the salon.”

The daughter made a point to Melissa that she was keeping a promise to her mother, and that this promise was based on her mother’s worry of looking like a “raggedy old woman” in a nursing home. She would never, never look like a “raggedy old woman.”

The conversation escalated into a full-fledged argument. Melissa then left a letter for the daughter in Edie’s room. I don’t know what the letter said, but it did nothing to improve their relations.

Melissa would later tell me that she had an anxiety disorder, and she knew how awful her anxiety made her feel. If Edie felt an ounce of that, she told me, then the family needed to stop the weekly salon visits immediately. I have no doubt that Melissa was acting out of genuine concern.

I wasn’t sure if I should insert myself into the situation. After all, I was Melissa’s supervisor for her project at the memory care community. In the end, I let it play out without my intervention. If I had it to do over again, I might have made a different choice. I could’ve made things better. Of course, there’s a good chance I could’ve made things worse. I mean, I can always make a situation worse.

At the request of Edie’s family, Melissa was told she was no longer going to be attending salon visits with Edie. Devastated at the news, Melissa worried about the anxiety Edie would be experiencing while getting her hair and nails done–without her.

A few months later, I wrote Melissa a letter of recommendation for a graduate program. It was a positive letter. I described her as caring and willing to be a strong advocate for vulnerable populations….or something vague like that. What I should have said is that she went to bat for someone who couldn’t go to bat for herself. Was she right to be so judgmental of Edie’s family? Did she handle it in the best way? I don’t know. However, I respect that she was willing to stand up when she felt someone was being mistreated. We need more people like Melissa.

As for Edie’s daughter…I respect her as well. She was keeping a promise to her mother, and I can’t judge her for that. Her commitment to reflecting the priorities her mother showed throughout her life was admirable.

I tend to think in black and white. I want someone to be right, and someone to be wrong. That makes the world simpler.

Yet…sometimes nobody’s really wrong. Sometimes we are all just people doing the best we can.

Melissa was doing the best that she could for Edie. Edie’s daughter was doing the best that she could for Edie.

It wasn’t long until Edie passed away. She fell at the memory care community and never really recovered. I saw her obituary in the paper. The photo looked relatively recent, and she was a beautiful woman. I remember wondering if she wore sunscreen daily, and I hoped that I would look as good when I was in my 80s.

I hadn’t talked to Melissa in a while, but she emailed me. She wanted to me know if she should go to Edie’s funeral. She really wanted to…but she just wasn’t sure if she should.

I told her no. I told her not to go to the funeral. I thought seeing Melissa at the funeral might put the family in an uncomfortable situation. I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but I was doing the best I could for the family–and for Melissa.

This was about eight years ago. I’ve thought a lot about my role in the conflict between two women who were doing the best that they could. Maybe I could have done…differently.

But I know Melissa and Edie’s daughter were doing their best, and I have to understand that I was doing my best as well.

Sometimes everyone is doing their best, but things don’t turn out the best.





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