Wandering Around Trying to be Helpful in Dementialand

I was leaving a nursing home when a disheveled and cheerful woman came up and asked me, “Do you need directions to the airport?”

In fact, I did not need directions to the airport, but the woman seemed so eager to deliver the directions that I said I was, indeed, headed to the airport. She excitedly told me exactly how to get there. I thanked her profusely.

As I walked away, an employee said to me, “That’s Eleanor. She just wanders around trying to be helpful. But sometimes it doesn’t go well and people find her annoying.”

She just wanders around trying to be helpful. But sometimes it doesn’t go well and people find her annoying.

I thought about this statement as I drove home. The staff member delivered it in such a negative way, but I wasn’t sure the negativity was necessary.

And I had to ask myself a question: Am I really that different from Eleanor?

Eleanor thought I needed help–but she was incorrect in her assumption. She offered me that help. Her directions weren’t useful to me. I wasn’t going to the airport. Even if I had been going to the airport, I already knew to how to get here. Even if I didn’t know how to get there, I had GoogleMaps on my phone. I didn’t need her help.

Forget about Eleanor for a minute. Let’s talk about Elaine.

Elaine is a college professor. She tries to help college students. She’s calls them into her office to talk about study habits, making an appointment at the counseling center, declaring a minor, career options after graduation….Sometimes these students ask Elaine for specific help in these situations. Many times, however, they don’t.

Elaine often makes an assumption about the type of help a student needs. Many times these students cheerfully accept her help. Sometimes they are resistant. Or even annoyed. Maybe they don’t think they need assistance with study habits. Maybe they think she’s being pushy when she suggests a psychology minor.

Am I really that much different than Eleanor?

You might think I do better than Eleanor at offering useful help catered to the situation in which I see a person, but a lot of days I’m not so sure.

Maybe none of us are all that different from Eleanor.

Perhaps we are all just wandering around trying to help people. And I’m guessing that some of the time we all have an incorrect perception of the help that our family members, friends, coworkers, clients, students, and/or customers need. Or maybe we have an accurate idea of the help someone needs, but we are misguided in our delivery. Perhaps people are resistant to our help because of their own baggage, and we don’t know how to overcome that.

Let’s face it…there are a lot of times we are well-intentioned but unsuccessful in helping someone.

I’m not randomly asking people if they need directions to the airport, but I do want to be helpful. Just like Eleanor, my intentions are good. However, I am sure that I’m often throwing out advice and input that is not useful to the recipient. Yet, like Eleanor, I can’t always accurately perceive when my attempt is misguided and when it’s helpful.

How many times have I given advice when someone has walked away with a polite smile and thought, “Wow. That was not useful at all?” How many times have I given someone input that wasn’t helpful and was even harmful without realizing it? I can’t always pinpoint when this has happened–because people are typically too kind to tell me–but I’m sure it happens a lot.

But let’s go back to Eleanor. Perhaps being helpful doesn’t always go well for her. But there’s something reassuring about human nature when dementia has limited a person’s world to a 110-bed nursing home and all that person does is wander around trying to help people. Eleanor might not know where she is. She might not know the year or be able to tell you whether or not she has children. But….still….her focus is helping people. And there’s something amazing about that.

And that’s why I’m going to forgive myself for all the times I’ve tried to help and it hasn’t gone well and I’ve annoyed people. Also, I’m asking you all to forgive me. Some of you have followed this blog for a long time now, and I appreciate you. I know that not everything I write is helpful. Maybe it’s bad timing or not relevant to you or just comes out all wrong.

I am currently sitting in my home office writing this as I look out onto the frost-covered field behind my house. But, figuratively, I’m just wandering around trying to help people as I write this blog every week. And I understand that sometimes it goes well, and sometimes I’m probably pretty annoying.

(Full disclosure–every once in a while I read a previous blog post and think I wrote something that is super unhelpful or just weird. In fact, a few weeks ago I read a post from last year and couldn’t help but think I might have had too much wine before coming up with some bizarre analogy.)

I hope, like Eleanor, you wander around your metaphorical nursing home trying to help people even as you acknowledge that at times your “help” will be misguided. Whether you’re a person living with dementia, a care partner, or a professional, I hope you’ll continue to look for opportunities to help even if you know your success rate is less than 100%.

After all, Eleanor did help me…although I didn’t need directions to the airport. An enthusiastic offer of help–even if that help isn’t that helpful in the way it’s intended–always brightens my day. You don’t have to help me to make me smile. You just have to want to help me.

No matter where we find ourselves in life, we feel the need to help others. We want to be useful. We feel more human if we can make a meaningful difference to someone else.

And that’s what makes the world an awesome place to be.

So keep wandering. Keep trying to help. Maybe it won’t go well. Perhaps you’ll be annoying.

But you keep doing it, and I’ll do the same…complete with my bizarre analogies and sometimes useless advice.






10 thoughts on “Wandering Around Trying to be Helpful in Dementialand

  1. So often I feel this same way — but I continue trying to help people, and to ‘fix’ whatever is wrong with friends or family members. People who give and who care do this — it’s part of their nature. So what if you’re not 100% on target each and every time; you’re out there batting and that’s what counts. You are needed, your thoughts and advice are needed–and I for one am grateful you are here.


  2. Dear Elaine,

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection. We all need to be wanted and needed and as you say sometimes our “assistance” is not wanted or needed, but how good we feel when we believe that we have helped someone. I’m sure you made Eleanor’s day, with your acknowledgement and respect. Incidentally, I have found all of your Blogs that I have read insightful and useful, so please never worry – you have so much to offer.


  3. I love love love this! You acknowledge the humanity of every person in your story — Eleanor, yourself, the reader, and everyone who is “just trying to help.” What fun to follow your blog. I always find your insights helpful. 🙂


  4. More to the point, Elaine, you made Eleanor feel valued and purposeful. Kindness does not need to be measured, goal-oriented, accurate or productive. Kindness – which is what she was extending to you, and you to her – is just love in action. I really enjoyed this post because it highlights how much we analyze the simplest of emotions, how we judge people’s behaviors based on our scant awareness, how we ignore the most obvious of obvious human rights – to be heard.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Such a basic human need, to be helpful. Too many folks focus on the misguided effort to be “honest” and miss a wonderful opportunity to give a love response. Thanks for another great, insightful post Elaine.


Comments are closed.