Basketball and Birds

If you know me, you probably know March is my favorite month.

Two reasons. 1) Spring. 2) Basketball.

My husband and I are known for putting three TVs in the living room so we don’t miss any NCAA tournament games.

It’s better than Christmas. I’m not kidding. I enjoy it a lot more than Christmas.

A few years ago, I happened to be at a memory care community during March Madness. I struck up a conversation with a resident. I mentioned that I was headed home to watch basketball.

He lit up.

I had met my match.

He started talking about the NCAA tournament. He was throwing out teams. Vanderbilt. Kentucky. Indiana. He was talking about scores. He told me who had beaten who earlier in the day. And who he predicted would win that night.

But it didn’t make sense. Some of those teams hadn’t made it in. And the match ups he described were off.

The enthusiasm was there, but the facts weren’t.

Then he mentioned a few names from the past, like Bob Knight, who retired as a coach years ago.

Here’s the thing….he was talking about NCAA tournaments of the past, but it didn’t matter.

I wish I had a video of how excited and animated he was talking about the tournament. He even acted out some buzzer beaters. And I really enjoyed our conversation.

We connected. We shared a passion. It talked to him for a long time. Not because I felt trapped. Because I was really enjoying it.

I could have questioned or corrected him about games, teams, and coaches, but that would have dampened his enthusiasm. And, in this case, his enthusiasm was far more important than the facts.

I tried to make this point recently to a woman whose husband had dementia. When they retired, they became avid birdwatchers. Her husband would excitedly identify the birds they’d see visiting their bird feeder. It was their morning ritual.

They continued their ritual after he had dementia. He just as excitedly (and confidently) identified the birds. Except he was wrong.

It really bothered his wife, and she asked me what she should do. He would get frustrated and argumentative when she corrected him. It seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for what was his only hobby.

“What would happen if you didn’t correct him?” I asked.

“Well, he’d continue to misidentify the birds,” she responded.

“And is there harm in that?” I asked.

She said, “But they wouldn’t be the right birds.”

I further questioned her. I wanted her to realize that his enthusiasm for bird watching was more important than the correct identification of the birds. But she couldn’t grasp it.

Then I realized that I was perhaps oversimplifying the issue by suggesting she just go along with his identification of birds.

Each time her husband wrongly named a bird, her heart broke a bit more. And I get it. This was her husband’s thing. It was their thing. And it was becoming more and more obvious that he was changing.

“Now he can’t name a bird. How long will it be before he can’t name me?” she wondered.

Ah. Now it made sense.

He was changing. He didn’t know a hummingbird from a cardinal. That wasn’t her husband. But you know what was her husband? The enthusiasm. And she was shutting that down when she corrected him.

We talked about ways she could work on letting go of his errors and focusing on his enthusiasm. If he said a hummingbird was a cardinal, could she talk about how it was the most beautiful cardinal she’d ever seen? She said she’d try.

We want to encourage people living with dementia to keep doing what they love to do. Watching basketball. Watching birds. We want people with dementia to be engaged and enthusiastic about life.

When we focus on facts, we steal that enthusiasm.

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