If I were to tell you I watched a woman with one maracas shaker moving from chair to chair, rolling it, touching and shaking her maracas at each one, what is it you would think she’s doing? Or do you think her cheese simply slid off her cracker?
I couldn’t figure this out. I was visiting my Mom at her Residence one day and watched an employee approach “Gladys,” saying, “…that’s a terrible racket and it’s disturbing the other residents. Please, you need to stop!” But Gladys didn’t even look up or give the employee any mind. She just kept going from chair to chair shaking her maracas.
The manager came out of her office nearby and drew the employee in her direction, spoke to her quietly, the employee nodded and returned to Gladys holding a large white rag. This time the employee seemed to understand more and approached her differently.
“Oh my Gladys, you’re doing such a beautiful job! I have this clean rag to help make your job easier, let’s do this together.” Gladys still didn’t acknowledge her, just kept using her maracas on the chairs, so the employee simply began joining in using her rag as Gladys was using her maracas. After a short time, another compliment came from the employee and Gladys finally looked up and started engaging with the employee. It was then the employee suggested they trade tools, “…but let’s keep going Gladys, you’re doing a good job and we make a great team!” Gladys took the white rag and they continued on.
Finally, “Whew!! We’re all done! Thank you so much!!” said the employee. “You’re welcome, dear,” Gladys said proudly, and together they walked away from the chairs, a job well done.
What the manager told the employee was that Gladys used to clean houses for a living. Gladys was simply doing something that felt familiar and comfortable to her, even though she wasn’t using a tool that made any sense to us, but it was all Gladys could find at the time to do the job she was used to doing as noisy and nonsensical as it was.
Mom’s behavior has also been odd at times. Many times, I’ve had to take a step back and become a detective. Sometimes I can figure it out and sometimes I cannot. One night I watched Mom take pieces of garbage out of the garbage can by hand, place them into another plastic bag, then take that plastic bag outside to the garbage bin. I asked her about it, but all she said was, “I want to do it this way!” I didn’t argue, but man, my brain’s rolodex was working overtime to try and understand this.
After she disposed of the garbage outside and came back inside, I said, “Hey thanks for doing that, let’s wash our hands now…” She didn’t understand my request and asked why. I said she did a great job completing an icky chore with smelly garbage, but Frank, Marco and Chrissy, (my three dogs) will NOT go near you with smelly hands!” She laughed and washed her hands. I never did connect the dots to this behavior.
I did connect the dots hearing from other residents Mom lives with when they told me Mom is the advocate to get help for someone if/when they need it, even if she becomes rather pushy and direct about it. The disease exaggerates the “pushy and direct,” but this behavior makes sense because Mom was an orthopedic nurse for 25 years. After that she moved into caring for those in Hospice, and finally became a Chaplain for Hospice. Caring for others, making sure they were taken care of physically, emotionally and spiritually, is who she IS and what she used to DO professionally. Clearly, she’s still doing it. The staff at her residence have been great. They have actually told me with a giggle, “She’s not ever been wrong, Vic.” Right on, Mom.
With Dementia patients, there is a level of dignity that needs to be honored. We have to learn to understand that whatever they are doing at any given time, makes sense to them. Whether I understand Mom’s behavior, or not, isn’t relevant. The only relevancy is that my understanding of her behavior has had to become a part of my time and learning process with and for her.
Early on I had no clue. I was controlling and took care of everything because Mom didn’t do anything “right.” Because I was trying to have a life myself and take care of her life also, I certainly did NOT have the time or the patience for her doing it “wrong.” I constantly butted in no doubt saying something offensive in the process. I made no effort to connect any dots to her habits or behaviors from of her past life or work experience. I hurt her feelings and dismissed her dignity and integrity in the process.
Now our time together includes her helping out, whatever that looks like. All mom is ever trying to do is give herself something useful to do that is comforting and validating to her. Funny thing is, isn’t that true for just about every one of us? Now I simply thank her for her efforts, and… so what if I wind up doing the same chore over again?
What Is True For Me: Mom’s behavior sometimes makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it never will. If dots can be connected to better understand how to handle a scenario, well then, super-duper, whihooo for me. If dots cannot be connected, and it doesn’t hurt or kill Mom or others, I’ll let her knock herself out and do whatever the heck she wants. I won’t correct, debate or argue. I just let her go because in her world, she isn’t lost, and she isn’t doing anything wrong, and that, my friends, is what needs to be remembered and respected.