The show must go on, so play your part

If you have had to move your elderly loved one into a 24 hour skilled nursing facility, memory care or Alzheimer’s unit, you are most likely at the point where you’ve noticed that your loved one is very possibly in a different reality than you are.  In their minds they may be living in a different place or year than you and the majority of humanity who are still currently living on the planet.   As dementia, Alzheimer’s and memory loss set in, many elder folks will head back in to the recesses of their minds to days gone by.  Now, I can tell you I don’t know all of the medical reasons why, however I personally experienced this with my dear father, who was diagnosed with severe Alzheimer’s.

Each and every week for over five years, I would drive my mom to the nursing home so we could visit with my dad.  Dad’s dementia had, most likely, started five years prior but now it had progressed to the put where he needed 24 hour care.  It had come to the point where I was stopping by their home almost daily to assist her with his increased care and I simply could not continue with that schedule.  My Dad couldn’t be home alone; he couldn’t take care of himself and caring for him, was more than my petite and fragile mom could physically handle.

Visiting with your loved one who is experiencing memory loss is a conundrum.  You want to see them and spend time with them; you hope they will be happy to see you and yet, you are connecting with a person who has or is in the process of losing all sense of reality.  Wow, what do you talk about?  What do you say?

Initially, my dad and I always discussed when he might get to leave this place and go back home.  Often a topic of conversation when your loved is initially thrust into this new location and lifestyle.  Once we got past the idea that this was home, the Alzheimer’s seemed to take over.  Quite frankly, if and when my daughter has to put me into a nursing facility, I will most likely check out as well.  Seriously, if you now found yourself in a lock-down facility with at least 20 other elderly people, all of whom can no longer care for themselves, wouldn’t you just slip into a happier place?  I would! Dad did too.

Through painstaking efforts, I would get my walker pushing; oxygen breathing; 90 lb. mother into the facility.  We would say our hellos to the staff, other seniors and my dad.  We would sit with my father and ask him how he was doing.  At which point, he would often times tell us an elaborate saga of having just been up in the fields and harvesting the crops.  I grew up with a theatre and music background, so I could instantly jump into the scene with my dad. “What are you harvesting today?”  Okra, my dad would reply.  Then our conversation would bounce back and forth with a myriad of questions and responses related to the farm and the crop, the yield, how far was the field from the farm house, etc.  Quite the lively and enjoyable conversation while my mother sat, like a lump of unmolded modeling clay.  She simply could not engage in this imaginary tale.  In fact, she would wait for the lull in the conversation to make sure she clarified for my father that none of this was real and that he was actually in a nursing home because he had severe Alzheimer’s  . . .  seriously?

Once this “real life” information was shared with my Dad, his joy for the harvest, the wind in his hair and the love of the farm vanished.  Mom had driven a monster truck right through the middle of his happy place.  Geeez mom!  She didn’t stop there.  She would continue on to say that she was his wife, I was his daughter and the other baby (I am an only child because she lost my younger sibling in childbirth) hadn’t lived.  What?  Not only had my mother jolted my father from his happy place, she had now told him he had a child that had died!  At this point, my dear Dad went from bewildered to inconsolable weeping.  After what seemed like an eternity I was able to calm my father down.  That seemed like the best time to wrap up and leave.

Once my mother was safely strapped into the front seat of my car, I confronted her.  “I actually cannot bring you to see dad anymore if you cannot find a way to play along in what he believes is his reality.  As you can see, when you tell him where he really is and what is really going on, it doesn’t keep him calm and happy.  From now on, when we come, we will talk with him based on whatever reality he is living in that day.”  This concept would not be easy for my mother to understand.  She really was the perfect Mother, but her thinking was based in the mundane and play acting just wasn’t part of her reality.

It took several more visits from that point on to have my mother pick up the script and join the cast of characters.  She would often lean into me, where my Dad couldn’t hear her and ask me what she should say next.  I would coach her with the next thought or two.  She got a little better as time went on but there would be no academy awards for any of her performances.  The point is, we just positioned ourselves into his world instead of trying to drag him back to ours.  It made him happy and content.  We could have a fun and lively conversation with him that was enjoyable for all of us.  In the end, it got us all through.

About Carol

Carol Core, President and Founder of CarolCARE knows, first hand, what your life looks like when it comes to caring for your elderly loved one. Carol knows, because for over 12 years she was the non-paid family caregiver for her Mom, Dad and dear Uncle Earl. While trying to juggle full-time work; life as a wife, mother and grandmother; she managed the care, health, finances and safety of three elderly people.