Who Was Your Loved One Before Dementia?


Leeanne Chames and I Skyped yesterday like we do about three times a week. I went back and watched it, and I saw something. I saw a man I hadn't seen for some time. I saw a man talking about who he was, what he had done in his life before this disease took everything from him.

I watched as he talked about working in law enforcement. I could see a spark in his eye that I hadn't seen in a long time. He was reliving what he was, what he had done, what he loved to do.

I often wonder, as I spend time in nursing facilities or dementia units, does the staff who interact with the patients actually know who each person is?

Every dementia patient has a past just like every other person does. But how many times does the facility, or anyone for that matter, know who this person was before their diagnosis?

I can imagine a facility where there are patients who were avid golfers once upon a time, where they have past school teachers, and where more than one patient played some sort of musical instrument in their day.

The thing is, every one of these people had a life before this horrid disease started ravishing their mind and body.

I am not living in the Land of Oz here. I realize that there is only so much time in a shift, and only so many staff members helping these people. No one has the time to sit down and talk about old times for a half hour or so.

But what would it hurt if the staff or anyone who comes into contact with the patient just mentions something to them about what they did and how proud their family must be of them.

Will they hear it? Will they understand? Some perhaps. For most, it is not likely. But it takes nothing but a little bit of time. Just that extra little effort to say, "Good morning Miss Janice, one of the best school teachers to come out of the Hillstreet School system!"

Let them know that you know they were somebody, that they are somebody, and you know about their past.

When staff ask me what can be done to help make the patients’ lives more tolerable, I ask them, "What does your staff know about each patient?"

Do they know their first names, or what they like to called? When their birthday is? Maybe what town they grew up in?

All of these are just little tidbits you can use when interacting with these folks. And the thing is, you can do this every day. Because of their memory loss, they will never realize you asked them the same question yesterday or even just minutes ago.

It may just raise a sparkle in their eye for just a tiny second. It may make just the smallest of grins come across an old tired face. They may just sit there and stare blankly into the wall.

But the thing is, it doesn't cost a dime. It doesn't take but a minute, and perhaps, just maybe it will reach them.

Staff members need to do this. Family members need to do this. We all need to do this.

It was only a few minutes that I saw the man I once was in that video, but he was there. The man I knew. The man who told everyone he would get through this. I saw no darkness in his eyes; I saw him talking and sharing stories. He was so proud.

I hadn't seen this man in a long time. Even the man in the mirror looks strange to him now. But there he was yesterday, in all his glory, talking to another wonderful friend about who he used to be...

Rick Phelps became an advocate for dementia awareness after being diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease in June of 2010, at the age of 57. He was forced into early retirement and created Memory People, an online dementia and memory impairment group which supports over 7,000 individuals, all touched in some way by dementia.

While I Still Can

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I couldn't agree with you more! I was a Social Worker for Hospice and had the pleasure of visits which did just that, talk to the person, reminisce with them. I met amazing people and their families, although saddened, were so proud of who they were and what they had accomplished in life. Nurses would ask how I got them to respond to me??? Well, first you have to respond to them with whatever they need.
I miss my Mom- she was the most amazing, beautiful, funny woman I knew. She could do anything she put her mind too, so skilled, so stylish, so strong. When the dementia took her away over time, it broke my heart but I did everything I could just to see her smile again. She passed last year at 93 1/2 yrs of age, after five years of gradual decline. Before that, she was fine, so we were so fortunate really. This article is so superb. A moment of someone's time, to give our loved one's a brief return from the lonely cell their mind's have become.
Maybe if each patient had a short history written about them by family members that the staff could read before interacting with the patient might be a way for the staff to see them more as the person they once were?