A guest blog by Mary Fogarty
When my husband, who has dementia, gets agitated, and the weather’s not too bad, we go out looking for swans. Unless he’s also feeling what the social workers might call “unpleasantly confused,” and I might call something less polite, depending on who I’m with. Since I’m with you, let me just say that, at such times, all I want to do is send him back to the factory for a new model. But when his personal weather is only agitated, and not storming with thunder and lightning, we go out.
In February, we saw a family of swans on a small local lake, and later in the month, we saw some on the river. We haven’t seen any since, but suggesting that we go look for them takes less time, and is a whole lot safer, than saying, “Let’s go drive around until you’re distracted enough to forget the ugly mood you’re in.” Or “Let’s go drive around until you forget that you want to go home.”
It would probably also work to say, “Let’s go looking for home.” But I’m afraid he might find one.
The home he wants to go to is even more elusive than the swans. He doesn’t seem to mean any of the houses I’ve known him to live in, or any of the ones he grew up in. He seems to mean a house in a neighborhood he recognizes, furnished with things he recognizes, inhabited by people he recognizes — a place that is just around the corner, and always out of reach.
So we look for swans, which not only can be found on occasion, but also, when you do find them, look pretty much like they did the last time you found them. White, with feathers, a swan-like neck, and a black beak. Not a lot of change going on with the appearance of swans. Unlike the appearance of people or houses or, for that matter, wives. Looking for them — the swans, not the wives — is a way into nature, a place that calms my husband’s anxiety and improves his mood. People wax poetic about the healing power of nature, but in spite of that, it works. Maybe it mutes the brain’s clamor.
I’ve got to admit, I’m pretty clueless about what goes on inside my husband’s head. So I speculate. Like one does with the family pet — well, like I do with the family pet. Maybe you have more sense. Right now the family pet is a cat. It used to be two dogs and a cat, providing even more opportunity for erroneous speculation. I can’t understand what my cat is telling me most of the time, except for a few really, really obvious things, like when he stands over his food bowl, yowling. It’s much the same with my husband, only his food plate’s not on the floor and he doesn’t have to stand over it. Oh, and unlike the cat, he’s usually demanding less food, not more.
Still, I try to understand what he’s thinking and feeling. Maybe nature is calming because it provides him with something more interesting to think about than his own confusion. Or maybe nature says, “Shut up and listen,” and he does. I kind of like this second explanation, so I think I’ll stick with it. When you do shut up and listen, something nice happens, even if you don’t have dementia, and even when there aren’t any swans.
So what do we do when it’s too bad to go out, either because of his personal weather or the stuff outside? We stay in and stream nature shows. Hopefully, ones without a lot of ripping of throats and such. The less bloodthirsty ones are usually pretty good. So is “Seinfeld.” Neither is as effective as being in nature. But, on the plus side, you almost never have to put up with people waxing poetic about the healing power of shows.