Stuffed Cats and Real Cats in Dementialand

I once got in a tense argument about whether a stuffed cat was a real cat. For the record, it was a stuffed cat but really it was a real cat.

About ten years ago, I was visiting with a hospice patient on a weekly basis. Linda-not her real name-had vascular dementia (as well as multiple other health conditions) and lived at an assisted living. She was reserved when I first started stopping by, and I had trouble connecting with her.

One day, I notice a stuffed cat sitting on her bed. She sees me looking at it and asks if I like cats. I tell her that I do. She smiles.

“Well,” she says. “You’ll love my Tiger. He is quite a cat.”

I’m not sure if she thinks Tiger was a real cat or not, so I walk over to pet him.

“Be careful,” she warns. “Tiger still has his claws.”

Yep. Linda thinks Tiger is a real cat. I shift gears and start interacting with Tiger as if he is a real cat. In other words, I step into her reality. Linda perks up some, and suddenly we have a connection. I figure out that Tiger is the key to engaging her.

Every time I stop by, I ask about Tiger right after I come in. He’s usually on her bed. Sometimes I pick him up and put him on the windowsill so he can watch the birds. A few times we find a nice sun puddle on the floor for him. One day she mentions that Tiger looks chunkier and accuses me of sneaking him tuna. I confess, and she smiles. I even buy Tiger a toy. Yes, I spend $5 on a toy for a stuffed cat. And Linda is beside herself with excitement, and I’ve forgotten that Tiger isn’t a real, living, breathing feline.

I come by one summer day while her son is visiting. When I ask Linda about Tiger, he rolls his eyes.

He tells me, “I’ve told her time and time again that Tiger has been dead for five years. He got hit by a car on the highway.” Linda looks at him, and then at me. I’m really not sure what to say.

“Actually, Tiger’s okay. He’s right here,” I say tentatively. The son takes a long look at me as I pet Tiger. I’m pretty sure he’s wondering if I’m the biggest idiot he’s ever met.

“You are petting a stuffed cat,” he says. “That’s not a live cat. It’s stuffed.” Let’s just say Linda’s son and I are not on the same page here, and I’m not about to let him break his mother’s heart.

“No, Tiger is a real. Alive and well,” I say. This is awkward. The son is not going to relent, and neither am I. I have now decided I am not going to admit to the son that the cat is stuffed. And once I pick a battle, I’m all in. He glares at me.

“Do you really not know this cat is stuffed? We bought him at Walmart,” he responds. “This is a stuffed cat.” At this point I should take this guy out in the hallway and explain why I am set on insisting Tiger is a real cat, but I don’t think of that at the time.

“Well, Linda knows that Tiger is real, so Tiger is real,” I say. At this point, I have Tiger cradled in my arms. I’m squeezing him tighter and tighter as I get more and more frustrated. If Tiger were alive, I might have suffocated him.

The son stares me down. It’s intense. Linda looks at me, and then at her son. He sighs and walks into the other room. I consider it a victory.

Candor in Dementialand (aka Notes on Whether My Hair is Scroungy like an Alley Cat)

I sometimes struggle with apathy when making decisions about the big things in life–like my hair. It used to be closer to chin length and now it’s shoulder length.

I’ve asked a few friends if they like it better shorter or longer and no one gives me a straight answer. They say things like, “Oh, it looks good both ways.” They are being nice…I get that. But sometimes I want honesty.

Fortunately, I work with people who have dementia. I was at a Memory Trunks program last week when a gentleman with vascular dementia asked me, “Is your hair longer these days?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “I don’t know if I should be growing it out or keeping it shorter.” He interrupts.

“Cut it. Cut it. Cut it,” he says. “It looks scroungy and there’s no point.” An honest opinion. He looks me right in the eye. For effect, he adds, “SCROUNGY. And pointless.”

I can tell this makes the staff uncomfortable. An employee steps in and says, “You have such pretty hair. It looks great longer or shorter.” But they don’t need to worry. I enjoy the honesty.

I later told my friend Holly that someone with dementia said my hair was scroungy. She told me that I am the least scroungy-looking person she knows. When I told another friend, Jen, she said, “Scroungy? Like an alley cat?” Yeah, maybe.

I’ve been told that I’ve put on weight (truth….). I’ve been asked why I was wearing combat boots (In fact, they were $150 boots I had saved to splurge on). It’s been suggested that I wear lipstick–because men like women who wear lipstick. I’ve been told my voice is annoying.

And I should point out that none of these comments from people with dementia were mean-spirited. They were simply honest observations.

I have to admit that in life there are times that we shouldn’t be completely honest. Sometimes honestly is hurtful. But I think a little honestly is refreshing sometimes. And sometimes I have to credit people with dementia for making sure I don’t take myself too seriously.

A few months back, I gave a presentation on dementia to a small group of professional woman in the morning. I had been in a rush and grabbed piece of toast with peanut butter to eat in the car on the way there. I gave the presentation and thought it went pretty well. Next I went to do some programming for people with dementia at an assisted living. I sat down in a chair and greeted them.

“Good morning,” I said. “My name is Elaine.”

“Elaine,” said a tiny woman sitting several feet to my left in a wheelchair. “You have peanut butter on your breast.”

I looked down, and sure enough there was a huge glob of peanut butter on my shirt. Keep in mind that I had already spoken to a group of 20 women that morning. I am positive that at least ten of those women had to have noticed the giant mass on peanut butter stuck to my shirt. No one mentioned it. I’m assuming they thought it would be awkward and didn’t want to embarrass me, but someone pointed it out within three minutes of my arrival at an assisted living.

They don’t care that I have a PhD. My credentials mean nothing to them, and that’s as it should be. To them, I’m not Dr. Eshbaugh. I’m just a woman with scroungy hair and peanut butter on her shirt. And there’s something about this that I really like.

The day after I was told I have scroungy hair, I made a hair appointment. I didn’t get it all cut off, but I did get it texturized and have some layers cut around my face. I’m hoping I look less like an alley cat.