I’ve had an old Hank Williams’ song running through my head for days: “Well, why don’t you love me like you used to do? How come you treat me like a worn out shoe?”
I figured it was because I spent the weekend visiting Mom in Texas, and that CD (one of dad’s favorites) played in the memory care activities room a great deal. Then I realized it was because I’d been thinking about this story, and that tune is a perfect theme song.
If I’ve learned anything from my years of caregiving experience, it’s that I’d better have thick skin. There are no filters or social graces much in the dementia world. If you take things personally, you’re in for constant trouble. You might as well keep your therapist on retainer. Consider this conversation I had with Mom Saturday:
Me: Want a kiss?
Me: Want a hug?
Me: Want a Dr. Pepper?
When my brother and sister stopped laughing hysterically, they both agreed that would make a great Dr. Pepper commercial.
Let me be clear: Mom wasn’t trying to be funny; she was serious. Now, a thin-skinned caregiver might’ve been crushed, thinking their status had just fallen below that of an inanimate object. But not me; I’m used to it. Well, sort of.
I only spent a millisecond this time feeling hurt, then got over it and got Mom her Dr. Pepper. I know my Mom loves me and she’s still very affectionate, but at that moment, she didn’t want me in her face.
I don’t know about you, but I spend alot of time apologizing, especially to the caregiving staff, for things my Mom says or does. I also spend alot of time thinking to myself Mom didn’t really mean that when she says something hurtful or rude to me.
It’s a fact that people with dementia lose their filters. They’re like four year olds; they say whatever comes into their heads. Four year olds haven’t yet learned that it’s not ok to remark that someone is rather large, or that they have funny hair. I talk about this at length in a previous post, “The Skinny on Disappearing Filters.”
People with dementia learned these social conventions, then the disease took them away. My sister-in-law says Mom spent a lifetime being ladylike, and is now officially over it. So true.
The brain’s mission control center is the frontal lobe. It’s responsible for regulating behavior. You could call it the don’t say that out loud part of the brain. When dementia damages the frontal lobe, all bets are off. Get ready for outbursts, rude behavior, and no inhibitions. (Read more about how dementia affects the brain here.)
Early on, I cringed every time Mom said anything rude, crude or socially unacceptable. Now I have more of an elephant hide. I know that sort of behavior comes with the territory. If it’s directed at someone else, I apologize for her. If it’s directed at me, I don’t dwell on it.
My friends with children already know this skill. They spend years being the target of their kids’ unfiltered honesty. If parents took that sort of thing personally, I’m certain all procreation would stop. Instead, the parents laugh, tell the stories to their friends, and move on. Just like we do here.
The best kid story I’ve ever heard is this: One of my friends showed a picture of her pregnant self to her son. She was explaining that mommy’s belly was SO HUGE because he was in there as a tiny baby. He listened intently, then asked her: So, mommy, do you have a baby in your butt?
I can’t hear that story without getting hysterical. She can’t tell it without getting hysterical. She doesn’t resent her son for saying that, she knows he was just a child being a filterless child.
Our loved ones with dementia are the same, only bigger. So when they say something mean, thoughtless or rude to you or someone else, don’t scold them. It’s ok to redirect them, or move them away from the target of their outburst. But like kids, they don’t know any better. They can’t control it.
But we can control how we respond. We don’t have to take it personally and hold a grudge, or think less of them. We don’t have to focus on feeling wounded; we can choose instead to see the humor in it.
So if you start getting treated like a worn out shoe, know it’s the disease talking, not your loved one. Work on your thick skin skills. Say 100 times: I will NOT take this personally.
Maybe Reinhold Niebuhr was thinking of this very issue when he wrote The Serenity Prayer. Hey…you never know. All I know is that it fits. So, repeat after me:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
P.S. Don’t get hung up on the God part, if you’re not so inclined. That’s fine; the principle still fits. Just ask something, anything for that kind of help.
Oh, and know that your loved one’s dementia and related rudeness are in that accepting things I cannot change category.
Here’s to thick skin! I think I’ll go have a Dr. Pepper and celebrate.