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.)
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?