Some have it, some don’t. Some can think on their feet, some can’t. I don’t have it and I can’t do it.
My daughters have it, my mother did, so did her sister, and many of my friends do. I mean quick wit, the ability to lead conversation away from touchy subjects. That ability is a gift so important when dealing with someone who has dementia, or indeed for any illness for which the prognosis is dire.
To redirect is a thing in dementia care, a way to direct the loved one away from a topic that is sure to lead to increased stress, a meltdown, anger, tears. To redirect is a mechanism to avoid answering a question that the caregiver doesn’t want to answer and that the patient doesn’t really want to hear.
My corny excuse to explain my total ineptitude with numbers is, I do words, I don’t do numbers. Likewise, I’m not much of a talker. I use pencil and paper and I listen. As my taciturn dad always said of himself, “Someone has to listen.” After the fact, I can always think of what would have been the smart thing, the right thing to say.
For people like me I recommend thinking up a list of things to say when needed. I’ve learned not to say to Peter, “I’m going home,” rather, “I have to leave now.” I’ve learned not to say, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” rather “I’ll be back,” or “I’ll see you next time.” It’s a way to get around the truth which could well be, I need a day for myself tomorrow, but I’ll see you the next day. I don’t use the word “home” in case Peter were to say, “I want to go home too.” On the very few occasions when he has actually asked when he can leave, I rely on something glib like “when the ravens leave the Tower.” He laughs, I laugh, and his plea is soon forgotten. “Never” is way too harsh an answer even though it’s the truth.
In professional caregiver circles* there’s a controversy about whether dementia patients should be lied to— euphemisms like therapeutic fibs, stepping into their reality, or brief reassurances are sometimes used. I don’t want to lie, but I bite my tongue if to tell him the truth would make the in-the-moment problem worse.
I’ve read articles that advise talking about simple things, talking down, in other words, to the patient’s level. I choose not to do that. The way I engage Peter is to tell him what’s going on in the world, the good and the bad. He listens with interest, nods his head or shakes it as punctuation and, at that instant, I truly think he understands. His grasp of my words is brief, but I always feel as if, in that short-lived span, I’ve reached him.
I have a mental file of funny stories to tell him about our two young adult grandkids. He grins as he listens. I share little snippets of gossip I’ve heard, even out of context, and he chuckles. News of our friends interests him, if only for the length of a smile.
As I’ve always done, I do it my way.
Just yesterday, Peter looked at family photos on his bulletin board and, as he does, counted pictures of himself. He stopped suddenly and said, “There aren’t any pictures of me mum and me dad! I really should go and see them…’aven’t see them for years, ‘ave I?”
What to say quickly? “Well, you had framed photos of your dad on the dresser,” I said, “but you hid them.”
He was shocked. “Why? Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know….” I gulped but barged ahead with the truth, “…they both died years ago. Your mum, in 1974 — it’s 2019 now — and your dad, in 1999. He died two days after my dad! We got home from his funeral to find out your dad was gone.”
“No one ever told me! Why didn’t I know?”
“You did know. We got back from Ohio one day and a little more than 36 hours later we were on a plane to England.”
He plopped down to think about this news. While he thought I wrote on his message board:
Mable Doris Walsh Clarke b. April 1, 1908, d. March 30, 1975
John Abraham Clarke b.November 13, 1909, d. November 8, 1999.
When I showed him he said, “How did all that get there,” pointing at my words.
I showed him the green marker I’d used. “I wrote them,” I said.
He waved his hands. “But how did you know all that?”
“I remembered it,” I said. He shook his head. “Someone’s got to remember these things, and you can’t, so I do.” He laughed, as I’d hoped he would, and hugged me.
For once I used the right words.
*”The Memory House / The comforting fictions of dementia care,” Larissa MacForquhar, The New Yorker, October 8, 2018. MacFarquhar is a staff writer, author of “Strangers Drowning,” and an Emerson Fellow at New America.
Header: Peter with his afternoon cuppa.
2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.