Never Underestimate a Person with Dementia

Around and around she went!  When she first was admitted to the dementia unite at the nursing home, Abbie was able to walk. In fact, she could hardly sit still. She was like a jack in the box at mealtime. She rarely slept through the night. She was on a mission, going to Who Knows Where. She did not seem particularly disturbed by her own wanderings even though there never seemed to be an end to her journey.

Her only child, daughter Karen, visited her each and every day. It was clear to everyone that Abbie did not even recognize Karen, yet Karen remained steadfast. "I'm giving her back the loyalty and care that she provided me when I was a child." she said.

Days and years passed. Abbie eventually started falling so she was given a wheelchair. People of any age can have a hard time learning how to maneuver a wheelchair, but Abbie had determination and she figured it out. She started wandering about on two wheels. Shuffling her feet as she propelled herself forward, she would wheel herself around the facility in what seemed to be a surprisingly consistent pattern.

I was Director of Social Services at the time, and I could tell time by her. Abbie would wheel herself to my doorway, speaking to me in a language that I could not understand; the language of Alzheimer's Dementia. Inevitably she appeared at my office each day promptly at 11:55 a.m. and then again at the change of shift at 3 p.m. Every day without fail Abbie was right on time, although she did not wear a watch and was assumed to be totally confused and disoriented.

One day we received the tragic news that her daughter had died in her sleep. She never had a chance to say goodbye to her mother.

All of a sudden Abbie changed her route. She started showing up at all different times in different places. She was unpredictable. She now mumbled constantly. Her words were not intelligible, but she was clearly repeating the same thing over and over again. One day I sat with her and I finally grasped what she was saying. I was amazed. 6-7-3-4-2-4-6.... 6-7-3-4-2-4-6... ad infinitum. I went to her medical record and, sure enough, she was repeating her daughter's phone number over and over again.

Everyone had just assumed that her daughter would pass from her life and she would never know the difference. Abbie taught us otherwise. We ultimately offered her comfort in her grief and could only assume that she might have been able to understand and receive it.

If you know someone with Alzheimer's Disease, the best thing you can do is to treat them with respect and dignity. They are trapped inside a body that seems to not understand because it can't communicate whether it does or not. Assume the best. After all, if you were that person, isn't that how you would want -- and need -- to be treated?

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