Loving Someone Where They’re At: A Story About Marriage, Napkins, and Pens

My husband did an Ironman triathlon in 2014. I was proud of him, and I’m sure you could tell that in my voice if you were to hear me talk about it.

A 2.4 mile swim. A 112 mile bike. Then a 26.2 mile run. I can’t wrap my brain around it. Why anyone would choose to pursue an Ironman triathlon for the sake of a hobby is beyond me. But it does make me proud that my husband chose to do so.

I heard the same pride in someone else’s voice recently when he was talking about his spouse’s hobby. It was an older gentlemen I met at conference put on by the Alzheimer’s Association. He came up to me, holding hands with his wife. She smiled but remained silent. He let go of her hand only momentarily to give me an enthusiastic handshake.

He introduced me to his wife. He mentioned she now had Alzheimer’s, and she lived at home with him. I smiled at her, and she smiled back despite seeming that she wasn’t following the conversation.

“Do you know what she really loves doing?” he asked me with a giant grin of proud excitement. “She loves rolling up napkins and wrapping them around pens! And she’s good at it!”

I felt like he was almost bragging.

I was a bit taken a back. Here was a guy who was telling me that his wife wrapped pens in napkins with the same pride I had when I told people that my husband did an Ironman triathlon.

People frequently tell me about the “odd” behaviors of their loved ones with dementia.

My wife puts dishes in the dishwasher, even if they’re clean.

My husband does laps around the basement all day.

My mom likes to play in the kids’ sand box.

Typically, there’s a question that follows. The question is: “What can I do to get them to stop?”

And no one has ever bragged to me that their mom is good at playing in the sand box.

But this man wasn’t asking how to get her to stop wrapping pens in napkins. He wasn’t considering this an odd or annoying behavior. In fact, he asked me what other activities she might enjoy if she got such a kick of out of doing that.

I found a napkin and a pen (ironically)—and I wrote on that napkin a list of supplies he could get at Hobby Lobby or Wal-Mart. Crepe paper. Metallic wrapping paper. Fabric scraps. Shiny pipe cleaners. Colorful bendy straws.

We decided he should put all of these new supplies out of the kitchen table and sit with her. Then he’d see what happened.

And he was excited. I don’t even know how to convey how genuinely enthusiastic this man was about the plan we had created. He told me he’d go shopping the next day if he could get a ride.

I wish I had gotten his contact information to follow-up. I don’t even remember his name or his wife’s name.

But I’ve thought about them a lot.

I’m not an expert on love, but there’s something to be said for loving someone where they’re at. I’m sure he loved his wife when she didn’t have Alzheimer’s. I’m sure he loved her when they could have interesting conversations and go on adventures together.

But when I spoke to him, he wasn’t focusing on what she couldn’t do. He wasn’t focusing on who she no longer was. He was focusing on who she was now.

And, when her abilities were becoming more and more limited, he looked at her and saw a strength. He could’ve focused on a million weaknesses. He could’ve told me about the struggles and challenges of Alzheimer’s, but on this day he told me about her potential.

She was really good at wrapping napkins around pens. He celebrated that. He loved her where she was at.

And when she sat down and concentrated on wrapping those pens, it made him so proud.

Sometimes the people I meet are pretty dang amazing.

6 thoughts on “Loving Someone Where They’re At: A Story About Marriage, Napkins, and Pens

  1. I was thinking this very thing this morning. My husband will do things that are odd, but it’s the way he sees things now. I could complain to him about the things he does that are odd, but why do that? It doesn’t serve any useful purpose. Acceptance and continued love and support are all that are needed. Thanks for sharing this story. I would have felt obligated to take that man to the nearest hobby shop and help him pick out things for his wife. Blessings to you…

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  2. What a lovely man. I have worked with children with Autism for many years, and now have three beautiful grandsons on the spectrum, and my emphasis has always been, to join them where they are at, and to celebrate their strengths. I think there are too many similarities between a brain impacted by Autism and those impacted with dementia. So this good man is right on track. Let’s celebrate abilities. ❤

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  3. I posted this on a Facebook group I’m on with my friends. It is so kind and comforting to know that there are people like you. Thank you from me and my other dementia friends.

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  4. There’s a lesson here for me! My husband is very creative finding way to store his clothes. I laugh with him sometimes, but more often than not, I tidy up. I shouldn’t do that and I know better! Thanks for this post, Elaine.

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