Dementia and the Kind Stranger

Let’s talk about kind strangers.

(You might wonder where I’m going with this…be patient. I’ll get there.)

Many times in my life, I have been the beneficiary of a kind stranger who made my day.

When I was in middle school, I was in a play. It was the only play I’ve ever been in, I had a small role, and I wasn’t very good. I remember standing in front of a vending machine during a break in play practice. The word “hangry” wasn’t a thing back them, but I was “hangry.” I put some money in to buy a snack and quickly realized that I didn’t have enough change.

A guy I didn’t know stepped up from behind me and put two quarters in the vending machine so I could get my snack. It wasn’t a huge act, but it must’ve had meaning to me because I remember it as I sit here more than 25 years later. This stranger had nothing to gain from putting two quarters in the vending machine so I could get my snack, but he did it. It was my earliest memory of a nice person doing something for me I would never reciprocate.

I had an experience with a kind stranger much more recently. I was on a flight from Cedar Rapids to Dallas last week with a flight attendant who absolutely made my day. He could have just done his job–but he made an effort to do it with humor and kindness. His dramatic demonstration of how to use the oxygen mask had me nearly in tears with laughter. (I’m not sure how American Airlines would feel about him mocking their safety standards, but I loved every second.)

He made an effort to keep the Camelbak water bottle I had brought on board filled with fresh water, even though that really wasn’t his job. I hate flying–not because I’m afraid of crashing but because I hate the inconvenience–and this guy made it about 20 times better. I had never seen him before, and I likely will never see him again, although I sure won’t be disappointed if he works one of my future flights.

I could give you many more examples of kind strangers who made my day by being especially friendly, generous, kind, and funny. People that I will come into contact with once and only once in my life. I’ve no memory of running into them before, and I don’t make plans to see them again. But that doesn’t matter. In that moment, they make me smile and laugh. They remind me that the world is an awesome place, and I’m lucky to be here.

It’s important to have supportive family members. It’s great to have a partner and friends that are fun to be around and come through in a crisis. I’m not downplaying the importance of long term relationships. But once I ran into this woman who was coming out of the bathroom at Barnes and Noble as I was coming in, and she said, “You have the most beautiful eyes, honey.” Sure, we don’t have a lifelong friendship, but people like that are important, too. They can change your mood in about two seconds. They can make you forget about all the crap that was on your mind. Thank goodness for strangers who spread kindness wherever they go.

As dementia progresses, interactions with strangers may be become frequent. Sure, it may be your spouse, your son, your daughter, your grandkid, your best friend…but if you don’t recognize them in that moment, they’re a stranger.

A friend of mine was struggling to visit her grandma who had dementia. Her grandma no longer recognized her.

“I don’t know why I go. I’m just a stranger to her,” my friend said.

Just a stranger?

I’m not denying it’s difficult when loved ones don’t recognize you. You are allowed to grieve that–but not when they are around.

But just a stranger?

A stranger can make your day. A stranger can show tremendous kindness. A stranger can surprise you with a sweet compliment. A stranger can make you laugh. Sometimes strangers can be pretty awesome.

If you are a stranger when you visit someone with dementia, be that stranger. Be that awesome stranger. Not the type of stranger that budges in front of you at line at SuperTarget or takes the last treadmill at the gym as you are walking toward it. Be the type of stranger that once got out of their car in a traffic jam a few days before Christmas and gave my husband and me a plate of sugar cookies. Yes, that really happened.

A woman I know recently told me that her mom with Alzheimer’s no longer recognized her. Once a week, she would visit the nursing home and bring her mom her favorite treat, Fig Newtons. Her mom had the exact same reaction each time.

“Now how would a stranger know my favorite treat?” she’d say with delight and a huge smile.

“A little birdy told me,” her daughter would respond.

“Well, I sure like that little birdy,” her mother would say.

This woman’s mother saw her as a stranger, but she was determined to make her mother’s interaction with that stranger as delightful as it could be. Many of us spend too much time quizzing our loved ones on who we are to focus on having a positive interaction.

Sometimes the best path is to stop insisting you’re a spouse, son, daughter, or friend. In most cases, you’re better off accepting your role as stranger. (And grieving your loss of relationship after you leave.)

But don’t just be any old stranger. Try to be the stranger that makes somebody smile.






8 thoughts on “Dementia and the Kind Stranger

  1. My mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. Since we lived quite far away, we visited only twice a year, and she rarely recognized any of us. One time, I came prepared with a photo album that contained all kinds of pictures – babies, dogs, pet birds, and people doing funny things. While my husband and son sat with my husband’s dad, I showed her the pictures. She didn’t know the people or animals in the pictures, but she was delighted to see a baby, a parrot, dogs, and more. We had a good visit.


  2. Wow, Elaine, isn’t this just the truth!!?! When the home fires of recognition are burning low, we (on both sides of the dementia journey) depend more than ever on the small kindness of strangers to warm us. Thanks for putting this into words!

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