The elderly gentleman entered the small grocery store in my hometown, seeming a bit confused and unstable. He approached a clerk and attempted to place an order but had trouble vocalizing what he wished to purchase. But then his son arrived and said, “Pop, the note is in your pocket.”
Sure enough, there it was. But his father couldn’t remember that he had it. The poor fellow was embarrassed, but he needn’t be. His son and the clerk understood and helped to ease his guilt. He was exhibiting the early stages of dementia—a severe and, at times, fatal condition that affects one in seven adults ages 71 and older.
This and similar scenes are played out countless times in cities, towns, and communities worldwide. Men and women’s memories are failing, their once vibrant brains deteriorating, so they can’t recall their past. And, most, unfortunately, feel a terrible sense of guilt about it.
These are our mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings, colleagues and neighbors, and fellow human beings. And it is heartbreaking when once hardworking, successful, decent individuals are reduced to pitiful, helpless, and all but ignored remnants of our society.
But let’s stop here! Pitiful? Helpless? Etc.? Perhaps they need to be taken by the hand or escorted in a wheelchair, but we can make them feel one with us—take them to family gatherings, bring them on outings, help them live a full life.
Did your dad or grandfather, perhaps, enjoy baseball? Well, take him to a game, and ask him who his favorite players were. Ask him if he saw any memorable games. You may be surprised by his recall. But the important thing is that you are with him and sharing his memories.
Perhaps, all people with dementia need is someone to hold onto, someone to jar their memories. And although our efforts may fail to help them remember at times, they may still help them realize, however vaguely, that there is someone at their side whom they can trust and depend upon.
Dementia, then, is a condition we must recognize as demanding our attention as caring adults. This is witnessed here at The Birches in our memory care community, our award-winning memory-support neighborhood. People who require special care because of their dementia are recognized as individuals deserving of friendship and compassion.
They attend programs with all our residents and happily participate in sing-a-longs and other musical presentations. They exercise with other residents in therapy sessions. In other words, they’re treated as individuals.
What can each of us do to be more “dementia-friendly?” I am sure that there are homes and facilities in many communities where people with many forms of dementia live. Consult the professional staff to learn how community volunteers (service clubs, fraternal groups, young people, individuals) may visit to befriend and support these men and women.
“How to live with people living with dementia is an inclusive campaign to create Dementia Friendly communities,” says James K. Curto, chief executive and founder of The Birches Assisted Living in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. He continues, “York, England, was one of the first cities in the U.K. to be recognized as working to become a Dementia Friendly Community. Their Four Cornerstones Approach: people, place, resources, and networks, have borne results in the U.K and the U.S. to develop community dementia-friendly villages.”
So, my friends, these are the stakes. We must, and that’s not a ‘should’ or a ‘maybe,’ make our communities “friendly” and hospitable to our relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and all who suffer from dementia. They have earned our compassion and our commitment to a safe and caring environment.