Seeing the Strength in a Person Living with Dementia
By Cagney Martin, Staff Development Specialist and Dementia Care Professional, Mount View Care Center
“That vase of lilacs is just beautiful, and it smells so amazing. I remember we had a huge lilac bush next to our barn and every summer it would just beam pink and purple. Mama would pick a new bouquet each week for our kitchen table. But you had to watch out for the bees, they loved those bushes just as much as we did!” This colorful memory was shared by a woman with dementia to a group of her friends, sparked by a simple vase of lilacs one of the staff members of the nursing home she lived at brought in. For about an hour the small coffee clutch reminisced about lilacs, farming, bees and their kitchen tables. It was a memory, an event, a story from many years ago, that she remembered.
“Remembered;” a word not usually used in a positive way with dementia but more likely to describe a symptom, specifically something that is lost. But this one wasn’t lost. In fact, it was as vivid as if it was happening right then and there.
Most of us know dementia to be a disease where memories are lost, people are forgotten, and simple tasks require help from caregivers. Certainly, these things can be true. But there is a much different side of dementia that doesn’t get talked about very often. It doesn’t get highlight in textbooks or trainings for caregivers, but it should. It definitely should!
In my 19 years of working in a nursing home and in my personal experience, I choose to believe that people with dementia, although they may have problems with short-term memories, can still make new memories and can still remember things from long ago. This belief comes from the thousands of conversations my coworkers and I have had with the residents of our nursing home. Memories and stories, laughter and sadness, all prompted by the smallest thing!
When short-term memories are forgotten it can be very difficult for caregivers. “When are we eating?” after you just cleaned up the breakfast dishes. “Where are we going?” for the fifth time as you drive to the store. “Who are you again?” a husband says to his wife. These are difficult moments for the caregiver AND the person with dementia. They are often the picture that gets painted of what dementia is.
But retrieval of long-term memories for a person with dementia can still be very active, especially when supported and encouraged by caregivers. Sometimes it’s a song, a photo or a person’s face that triggers the flood of memories from the “bank”. It’s a skill that doesn’t take much to learn but can mean the world to the person living with dementia.
As I assisted a resident with her meal, she turned her head away from me and stared at my coworker across the table. I struggled to help her eat. I noticed the look in her eye as she gazed at my coworker. It was as if her eyes where smiling and not just a “that’s nice” smile but a full on, with all my heart, “I love you” smile. No words came from her mouth, but her eyes said everything. “Oh my gosh, Nicole, look at her looking at you! She’s smiling so big. I wonder why she is doing that or what she is thinking?” Nicole looked at the resident and said to me, “She used to be my babysitter when I was little. I think she recognizes me and remembers my voice!” I couldn’t help but smile as she explained their history. No wonder she wouldn’t eat for me! It was a memory, retrieved by a long ago familiar face, all grown up now. I was so happy to be sitting at that table that day and I know, without a doubt, Nicole was.
That’s the strength a person with dementia has; to retrieve those stories from long ago and that’s the strength the caregiver has; to open the memory gates. None of us want to be recognized for our weaknesses but to have others see our strengths. That’s what we need to focus on for those living with dementia. Where are their strengths, what can they still do, who are they becoming? Find the positive.