Dementia, Unscripted Conversations, and How Much I Sweat

I had driven across Iowa on a hot and humid summer afternoon to give a presentation to staff at a memory care community. I couldn’t park close, so I had to walk for about five minutes to get to the building.

By the time I entered the lobby, I was sweating. Not sparkling or glowing or any of those other words women who don’t sweat much might use. I was sweating.

And I sweat a lot.

A friend of mine goes to a workout class with me and walks out looking refreshed. I walk out looking like I’ve been stranded on an tropical island for weeks and someone just rescued me…except I’m not that skinny. Ten minutes of exercise and my hair is drenched, my mascara is dripping down my cheeks, and my shirt looks like it’s just been pulled out of the washer.

I know there are medical conditions that cause excessive sweating, but I don’t have one of them. I’m just a woman who sweats a lot.

As I entered the memory care community on this particularly sweltering day, I saw a bench. I decided to sit for a minute and attempt to stop sweating before I walked in to do my presentation.

An older woman with a walker slowly made her way up to me. I greeted her, but she didn’t respond. She sat down next to me.

I figured she didn’t want to visit, so I pulled out my phone to check for messages.

Then she said, “You sweat more than the average girl, don’t you?”

I put my phone down. I hadn’t realized I was sweating quite that much. I told her that I did sweat a lot.

“It’s good. You get the bad stuff out faster so you can be a better person,” she explained.

I hadn’t heard that before, but I was intrigued. In fact, it was the most positive interpretation of extreme sweating that I had ever heard.

“Like toxins?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “Like old boyfriends.”

“You sweat out old boyfriends?” I asked.

“Unless you want to keep them inside,” she answered.

I nodded. I certainly didn’t want to keep old boyfriends inside. I mean, let’s sweat those guys out and be done with them.

There was a short silence as I pictured tiny versions of my old boyfriends sitting on my skin until I wiped them off with a towel.

I asked her if she had sweated out all her old boyfriends.

She said, “No, I don’t sweat so much.”

Then she got up and shuffled on.

And somehow, I didn’t feel so self-conscious about sweating.

There’s something about this conversation that I love.

This woman didn’t introduce herself. She didn’t try to make small talk. She wasn’t commenting on the weather or complimenting my dress.

She went straight for my sweating.

Perhaps it wasn’t appropriate. Or maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate in most settings. Most of us understand that you shouldn’t go right up to someone and comment about what might be making them self-conscious in that moment.

But it’s par for the course when you sit down in the atrium of a memory care community.

If this woman hadn’t had dementia, we probably would’ve had some generic scripted conversation like “Hi. Hello. How are you? Good. And you? Fine. Isn’t it so hot out? When will it cool off?”

Sure, I’ve had lots of people with dementia make comments to me that aren’t kind.

A guy at a facility that I frequently visit often tells me I’m looking fat. Once a man with dementia told me my hair was scroungy like an alley cat.

I know that sometimes people with dementia lose their “filter” or social judgement as the condition progresses. This can mean hurt family members and awkward situations.

Yet, there is a part oft this departure from typical conversation that I enjoy.

When the person with dementia doesn’t follow the “social script,” I feel like I don’t have  to either. And there’s some barrier that breaks down.

A woman with dementia commented on my sweating. She didn’t ask me how I was or why I was visiting. She went straight for the sweating.

I didn’t expect that to come my way, but I leaned in. I didn’t just nod and smile. I wanted to engage.

And I got a reward. Now when I am sweating a lot I picture my old boyfriends squeezing out of my pores.

There’s something strangely fulfilling about that.