Why Dementialand Needs an Orientation

There’s a lot people don’t tell you about dementia.

The doctor says your loved one has dementia. Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s. Maybe it’s Vascular Dementia, Lewy-Body, or Frontotemporal Dementia.

The doctor only has a limited amount of time because that’s how our medical system works. You go home. No one teaches you how to live with dementia. No one tells you what challenges might lie ahead. You think it’s about forgetfulness, but you will learn that it’s much more than that. It’s about brain failure, and your brain is the control center for your body. Dementia can cause a person to be unable to swallow and control motion. If it progresses far enough, a person isn’t able to eat, talk, or walk. Maybe no one told you that.

No one tells you what to do when your loved one forgets they can’t drive anymore or when they insist that they have to go to work when they haven’t worked in 15 years. No one teaches you how to deal with a previously mild mannered mother who is screaming obscenities you didn’t know she knew. What do you do when you have to buy Depends for your dad and he takes them off and tries to flush them down the toilet? How do you make sure Grandpa doesn’t leave the house and get lost when he gets up at 3 am?

When your mom starts saying she doesn’t have any kids, should you tell her she actually has three? Should you explain to her that your dad passed away years ago when she asks when he’s coming home? And if your grandma starts slapping you when you tell her she has to take a bath, should you push the issue? How often does she really need to bathe, anyway? No one told you how to deal with this.

I spoke to a woman this week whose mother has dementia. Her mother constantly apologizes to her, making statements like, “I’m sorry I’m not the mother I used to be. I’m sorry I can’t be there for you.” And then they both cry.

After a few years of this, she finally came up with a response. Now she says, “You may be a little different than you were. I loved the person you were, and I love the person you are now.” She says she regrets that it took her years to learn how to figure out the right thing to say.

No one tells you how to help your loved one through the extreme anxiety that may come with navigating an unfamiliar world. No one tells you what to do when they cry but can’t tell you why they are sad. And what do you do when they get really pissed about something that never even happened? What if they think another family member is stealing from them?

You promised them you’d never put them in a nursing home. But what do you do when someone needs to be with them 24/7 and you have a full-time job? How can you break that promise without feeling guilty for the rest of your life? And how do you figure out which nursing homes are best for people who have dementia anyway? Also, you can’t figure out how you’re going to get your 250 pound father in the car and to the nursing home when he says he’d kill himself before moving there.

And when is it okay to laugh? A woman once asked me if she had done the right thing when her husband forgot to pull up his pants and waddled out of the bathroom with his Dockers around his ankles in front of company. I asked what her response was. She said, “I laughed, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to.”

No one tells you if it’s okay if you aren’t always completely honest with someone who has dementia. I recently talked to a man whose dad died of Alzheimer’s. He said, “I wish I have known it was okay to lie sometimes. That would’ve made it a lot easier.”

Although I’ve referred to how a family is unprepared for the challenges they might encounter, the same is true for individuals who have been diagnosed. How do I cope with changing abilities? How do I tell other people about my diagnosis? Am I able to handle my own finances? What can I do to make sure I remember to take my medication each day? (Once someone with Alzheimer’s said to me, “I’m on some meds for my Alzheimer’s, but I don’t always remember if I’ve taken them. Maybe if I remembered to take it, I’d remember to take it.” How’s that for irony?)

There’s a recent research study by the Alzheimer’s Association that suggests less than 50% of people with Alzheimer’s are even told of their diagnosis. How can you prepare for something when you’re not given all of the information?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one out of three older adults dies with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In a nation where dementia is so common, how can we be so unprepared? Sure, we wait and hope for a cure…but in the meantime, how can we neglect to provide the education and support so many families need? And why can’t we talk about dementia without embarrassment or stigma?

And although I am confident we will someday find a cure, it will not be today. I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist. Medical technology has increased our lifespan–which has in turn increased the likelihood that we will experience dementia. In other words, we can save you from all this other stuff so you’ll live long enough to get dementia. Yet, we are completely unprepared for the challenges dementia brings.

And it’s not just about old people. I know several people who were diagnosed in their 30’s. And I don’t think I fully understood this tragedy of this disease until I stood face to face with someone who was my age and had just been diagnosed. She even looked a little like me…I went from knowing ‘this could be me someday’ to ‘this could be me.’ There’s a difference.

Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease. Lewy-Body Dementia and Frontotemporal Dementia are terminal illnesses. Dementia kills people. I hate to be this blunt, but I think society’s lack of understanding of the terminal nature of dementia stagnated research for many years. We think it’s just about old people becoming forgetful, but it’s not just about old people and it’s not just about forgetfulness. It’s about total brain failure. Alzheimer’s has no survivors. You will die from it or with it.

I have to be careful when I mention that dementia is fatal. Many individuals and families impacted by dementia don’t realize this. In the past, I have stated this in a very matter-of-fact way, but sometimes it’s the first time that people are hearing it. No one tells them.

There are also positive things that no one told you about. You might smile because your mom laughs at something that she sees…but no one else sees. You don’t care that she’s having visual hallucinations or has issues interpreting what she sees. You’re just grateful she finds humor in something.

It might make your day that your dad thinks he is a New York City subway station as he wanders around the nursing home. After all, he loved the subway and New York was his favorite city. Grandma has been retired as a teacher for many years, but she conducts class in her memory care unit using dolls as her pupils. She finally has a sense of purpose again, and it makes you happy. No one told you that you that such things would make you happy. You didn’t realize the challenges of caregiving for someone with dementia, but you also didn’t know about these unexpected moments in which you would find joy.

No one told you that some friends and family would abandoned you. Sure, maybe they say that they pray for you and think of you all the time, but they aren’t there offering to run to the grocery story or stay with dad so you can go out to lunch. On the other hand, no one told you that some people would step in and amaze you. Maybe they’re not the support system you expected, but they get you through the day.

I advise incoming college freshmen at summer orientation each year. When young people graduate high school and progress to college, they must adapt to a new set of norms, an entirely different culture, and different goals. What worked in high school may not work in college. For that reason, there is an extensive two-day orientation to Collegeland. It includes sessions on financial issues and tips for success. There is no such orientation to Dementialand.

I wish there were an orientation because there are a lot of things about Dementialand that no one told you.

How Michelle Remold Helped Me Understand Reality in Dementialand

I’m a college professor, and I have favorite students.

Maybe you think this is a horrible thing to say, but it’s unavoidable. I connect with some students more than others. And there are certain students for which I would go to the end of the earth.

On the top of that list is Michelle Remold, who graduated a couple years ago. And maybe I haven’t literally gone to the end of the earth for her, but I did drive to Minnesota on my own dollar to do a community education at the senior center where she currently works. Of course, she did buy me dinner and a margarita after the presentation.

Michelle created a program called Memory Trunks for our Gerontology program. I still do the program that she started. She actually made me a handbook so I could do it after she graduated. This handbook has been sitting on my desk for three years. In all honestly, I haven’t opened it in two years, but I can’t put it in a drawer because I think it’s so awesome she made it for me.

Michelle came to my office after doing Memory Trunks one day and told me a story that has stuck with me. She had been at a nursing home and was visiting with an activity director who said she “didn’t know what to do with” residents with dementia.

First, Michelle was bothered that an activity director had no idea how to work with individuals with dementia, and she should have been. Second, Michelle had an issue with a statement the activity director made about how the residents with dementia had such “active imaginations.”

Something clicked for me. Michelle was right on. We need to stop thinking that people with dementia have “active imaginations” and accept what they hear, see, feel, and touch as their reality.

One of the most important truths I have discovered over the past several years is that what people with dementia experience is as real as what I experience.

I recently talked to a friend who told me her grandma had dementia and thought a couple with a cat lived in the corner of her bedroom. That couple with their cat? They were just as real to her as the laptop I am typing on right now is to me. If you try to talk her out of thinking that couple lives in her bedroom, you’re gonna have the same result you have if you tell me that there’s no laptop in front of me.

I have a short video clip I show in class. A woman with Alzheimer’s thinks there are snakes in her wheelchair. She’s terrified–as I would be if I were surrounded by snakes as I sit here on the couch. The only effective strategy for eliminating her anxiety is to acknowledge this as reality and remove her from the wheelchair with the snakes. Whether or not these snakes are part of your reality is irrelevant.

We need to stop trying to talk people out of their reality. Furthermore, we need to stop thinking that our reality is more important than their reality.

Thanks, Michelle.