Working in senior care for over 30 years, it takes digging deep to recall my early experiences interacting with the elderly and those with dementia. I was a volunteer and an intern during college when my first encounters occurred.
My experiences were mostly pleasant and fun. The people were just older versions of my grandparents. I enjoyed visiting with the independent seniors. They showed me around their cute apartments and told me stories. However, encountering people with dementia was another story.
It puzzled me when one lady repeatedly said, "I want to go home," when she was at home. I didn't know what to say. One lady forgot that I was picking her up for a concert, even though I reminded her the day before. I thought maybe she didn't want to go after all.
Little did I know that these people had Alzheimer's Disease. Learning that their memory was impaired, I assumed they had NO memory. Therefore, I thought it was my job to remind them of everything. I thought their brains could be fixed. I was wrong about a lot of things, albeit well-intentioned.
Learning Through Education and Experience
Over-time, I "got it" and became more comfortable being around people with dementia. My confidence grew as time went on. I learned that the things they said and their behaviors didn't define their personhood. Consequently, I came to enjoy being with them.
Looking back, I can see how extraordinarily helpful training like Dementia Live would have been. I genuinely think it would have propelled my understanding and improved my interactions ten-fold. Webinars and lectures barely scratch the surface to learn what it takes to promote quality of life for persons with dementia.
Time and experience alone should not be our only path to understanding. The valuable lessons that the Dementia Live experience teaches learners include:
- persons with dementia experience feelings, even with impaired memory
- their behaviors are a form of communication
- the environment makes a big difference in their ability to connect
- purpose in life is still essential for their well-being
- our communication approaches can make or break an interaction
Learning does comes with time and experience. However, I submit that ground zero isn't the best place to start. People with dementia deserve better than to be surrounded by uninformed, clueless people, such as I was years ago.
Julie has worked in Aging Services for over 30 years and has been a Licensed Nursing Home Administrator since 1990. She is a Certified Master Trainer with the AGE-u-cate Training Institute. Through her company Enlighten Eldercare, Julie provides training and educational programs on elder caregiving for family and professional caregivers. She is an instructor and the Interim Director of Gerontology at Northern Illinois University and lives in the Chicago Northwest Suburb of Mount Prospect, IL.