By Rosemary Grayson
It’s fun living with dementia, if it’s not you. Or now it can be, even if it is you. To enter Thebes, they say the Sphynx‘s riddle was: “‘Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” Those who got it wrong died. To enter a new world of hope and happiness, let me help solve another riddle. It’s called, “Contented Dementia.” Counter intuitive, a contradiction in terms or simply a psychobabble headline grabber, are entirely bearable reactions.
When you know I live in an assisted living facility, where I do some of the assisting, give me a fair crack of the whip. “When dementia begins, a single striking change happens in what gets stored: the factual content is not registered, only the feelings”, says Oliver James, psychologist and author of this revolutionary new way in dementia treatment. Also author of The Selfish Capitalist and Praise for Affluence, James’s Contented Dementia, written only eight years ago brings startling benefits for patients and care givers alike.
And here’s where I come in. Imported from the UK by such exceptional and caring friends, I found it impossible to become one of three people in their marriage, to quote Princess Diana. As badly damaged goods from the equivalent of fleeing the holocaust, for me here was a perfect bolt hole at Casita Del Lago.
Mention of ‘assisted living facility’ over coffee in a Lakeside plaza, stirs up hideous images, guilt ridden mumblings or a swift change of subject. But drill down to ‘I live in one and love it’ and then the mood changes. My ticket is to banish fear. And it’s Dementia and Alzheimer’s, the D or A words that need an instant and strong spotlight. I am a volunteer with the blessing of Sara Vegas and Ron Langley. Most of the residents have dementia.
My personal mission is two-fold. I listen to the experts, those who have dementia and translate what they communicate to their two teams of caregivers. The home team is the on the spot nursing staff. As Mexican women, they have care fused into their DNA. The away team is family and friends at Lakeside or scattered across the globe. As always the devil is in the details. Communicate is a vague and debased word.
My background is TV reporting and journalism. It turns out that getting a story out of someone as painlessly as possible fits the bill. Excavating the right subjects, then exploring them at length is a major part of the deal too. Happy cover- ups put the icing on the cake. Dementia cannot be cured. We are in the business of damage limitation here, yet happily so.
SPECAL (Specialized Early Care for Alzheimer’s) on which the ‘Contented Dementia’ system is based was founded on the experience of Penny Garner, a British housewife and graduate, inspired by the dementia of her mother Dorothy. The flagship notion for both teams of caregivers, Penny says is: “The only difference between the person with dementia today and the person you used to know is a single disability: they can no longer store new information efficiently.”
One fine upstanding 92-year-old former farmer’s wife, here with a hand shake like an unskilled worker, asks me the way to the lavatory five times each and every day. Yet on our daily walks we discuss farm management in detail.
That sounds like casual chat yet indeed there is a system governed by strict rules of gentle engagement. Included are well-tested simple devices known as the ‘photo album,’ “the primary and health themes” plus others to explain the absence of loved ones, for long or short stretches of time.
The three commandments are, “don’t ask questions,” “learn from them, the experts on their disability,” and “always agree with everything they say and never interrupt them.”
I practice the method and it has instant heartwarming results. To see eyes brighten as they engage is like the dawn breaking.
Loss of self esteem is the casualty of this disability. If left in a void, it can develop into aggression. So “the ladies,” as they are affectionately known, have regular hair care, manicures, pedicures and parties amongst other life enhancing experiences.
All the drop-dead gorgeous, eagle-eyed nurses, who work 24/7, have boundless patience. One day an 87-year-old former top golf pro in her time seemed to have trouble eating her breakfast. She was the top member of the “clean plate club” here. Instantly one of the girls popped a hygienically-clad finger in the lady’s mouth. Look no teeth. No good enquiring, just whoosh, an instant, silent well-oiled team action plan rolled out. One girl dashed to the bedroom, another to the bathroom and a third to the kitchen waste bin. New lining in the bin proclaimed the stuff had been cleared to big containers on the main road. So breathless, in sparking white uniforms, these visions of loveliness were seen dumpster diving on the green verge.
Oblivious to the leering traffic horn hooters, they bounced back in triumph. Rubber-gloved as if in medieval gauntlets, they bore aloft the dentures as deliriously as they might the Holy Grail itself.