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When Dementia Knocks

    A university employee stopped at the dementia simulation house the other day to deliver something. He seemed to have some curiosity as to what this project is all about, and we chatted for a bit.

    He told me that his dad, who has dementia, doesn’t even try to pay attention to conversations anymore.

    He looks at the ceiling. He fiddles with the buttons on his shirt. He sticks his tongue out.

    Every once in while, he responds. It’s typically “yes” or “no.” Sometimes he will ask a question on a topic unrelated to the conversation.

    “So how are the Bears doing?’”

    “Did you ever get to go fishing this weekend?”

    The man told me that he wondered if it was even worth visiting his dad at the nursing home.

    I talked a bit about the dementia brain, how it struggles to block out distractions, how it tires easily, how it struggles to process language and come up with an appropriate response.

    I pulled out our simulation gear to give him a quick demo of how the dementia brain interprets sensory information.

    “I get it,” he said. “It’s not that there’s nothing going on in there. It’s that there’s too much going on.”

    It was an Oprah-worthy a-ha moment.

    He realized the environment his dad was in (a communal area at a nursing home) wasn’t ideal for a visit. He wasn’t setting his dad up for success.

    There was too much going on. Another family having a conversation. A few random grandchildren running around. Another resident watching a TV in the corner.

    His dad’s brain couldn’t prioritize the “important” sights and sounds. He became overloaded with info his brain struggled to process, and he shut down.

    After I visited with this man for a few minutes, I realized he really did get.

    We talked about a new plan for visits.

    Maybe 1 or 2 people should visit at a time, rather than 5 or 6.

    Perhaps it’s okay if visits are shorter because the dementia brain tires easily.

    It might be a good idea to just sit quietly for a while. Not every moment has to be filled with conversation.

    If your dad wants to talking fishing, you talk fishing. It doesn’t matter if it’s football season or not, talk about the Bears.

    He left seemingly more positive about future visits with his dad.

    You can’t cure dementia, but you can try to set people up for success.