Learning to Say Yes

Dementia is my teacher.

I did not expect to learn anything from this thief that is stealing my mother’s brain.  I thought I would learn about dementia, but not from it.  My mistake.

When my mom moved here to be closer to family, I decided to become the queen of dementia care. I was going to learn everything there was to know about how the disease begins, how it progresses, and how to care for the patient.  I went to workshops, read books, found support groups, watched videos.  I learned to enter the patient’s reality, to redirect her attention when she’s distressed, to protect her dignity even as she’s losing her mind.

But mostly I learned one simple truth:  you can’t fight with dementia.  It always wins.

So I learned (from another actor) to use the “yes, and” technique of theatrical improvisation in real life.  If you’re not familiar with this skill, it works like this:

You’re in an improv, and your scene partner says something like, “Martian pediatricians just landed in the cow pasture.”  You thought the scene was going to be about dairy farming, so you are alarmed.  But this is an improvisation, and the cardinal rule of improvisation is that you never, never say no.  If you say no, the scene dies.  You say yes.  More specifically, you say “yes, and. . . .”

“Yes! And it’s a good thing, because our calf needs a check-up before his inter-galactic flight.  Did you bring the insurance card?”

And the scene continues. 

So it is with dementia.  My mother’s brain loses some memories and creates others, so that she forgets where she put her hearing aid, but she remembers in excruciating detail that someone is stealing from her.  (No-one is stealing from her.)  Obviously this is heartbreaking, but the only way to get through it is to say, “yes, and . . . .”

“Yes!  And I just remembered I have some of your things at my house.  Why don’t we double-check what’s there before we replace anything?”  And voila; she feels heard, and validated, and the scene can continue.  It might even have a happy ending, as it did last Sunday, when she got to hug several precious children at church. (She loves to hug.)

Epiphany members August 2013 026b

Yes.  Yes, Mother, you’ve lost something.  Yes, you are afraid. 

And.  And I love you, Mother, even with your losses.  

You will lose your hearing aid, and you will lose your keys, and one day you will lose your mind. 

But let’s see if we can find your smile, shall we?

11 thoughts on “Learning to Say Yes

  1. So exquisitely beautiful. I am going to share this with a preacher friend of mine who is doing some really cool work on improv and liturgy/worship. She wrote a lovely blog post recently about the ‘yes and’ technique. Much love, R

    p.s.-we need to talk. Will call later this week. xxoo

  2. I too used these skills after my dad’s massive stroke which created cognitive loss. Our actor’s training has been valuable in a surprising variety of ways. It was difficult and a blessing to care for my parents, and I miss them terribly every day. God bless you and thank you so much again for sharing this blog with us. It lifts me.

  3. Carolyn, this simple reminder is incredibly helpful. I’m in Year Nine of caregiving both my 90-year-old mom who has dementia and my 50-year-old brother who, born with cerebral palsy, is totally wheelchair-bound and now has a pre-seizure condition. On those particularly difficult days I will remember to be more creative and less habitual in my responses. Once again you bring light into my life. Thank you!

  4. Carolyn, though it’s been so many years I remember you so well from Carrollton. I have been an RN in home services for several years and I just love your insights to the dementia family condition. It’s so hard to “give in” or “lie” but when we truly consider what is therapeutic communication and how to find “ease” for our loved one, these communications are easier. Take care and God bless you and your mom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s