Seeing Mom's Humanity First, Instead of Her Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Over the weekend, I pulled out the June issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. As I flipped through the pages, I came across  a feature article entitled, “The Life in There.” Based on her recently published book entitled Dancing with Rose, Lauren Kessler’s magazine article describes how she decided to take an entry-level job at an Alzheimer’s facility as a way to overcome her fear of the disease, which had been the cause of her mother’s death.  

    The article recounts the challenges of working with residents at the residence facility, including Lauren’s efforts to reach out to the residents on a regular basis. She notes in the article how she has moved away from identifying someone based first on the pathology (in this case, Alzheimer’s), and instead has focused on making “the person come first,” a concept she read about in the book, Dementia Reconsidered, written by psychologist Tom Kitwood.
    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Each person that Lauren describes in the magazine article is seen as a person first. That person might not know the difference between hot and cold, might have emotional outbursts, or might now talk a lot (instead of maintaining a taciturn composure).  Yet, Lauren describes meeting each person in his or her own reality and helping each through the ever-changing issues that happen during a day in an Alzheimer’s residence.

    Unfortunately, many people still view those who have Alzheimer’s through the lens of the disease, instead of focusing on the characteristics and history of the person. So how do you help people -– and in some cases, nursing home staff members -– make this transition to seeing your loved one as a person who happens to have dementia?

    I think I have been successful once in helping a professional caregiver who worked with Mom make that paradigm shift. When Mom first came to the nursing home’s secure unit, a few of the nurse’s aides treated Mom as a patient with Alzheimer’s, instead of as a unique human being with her own formative history, habits, likes and dislikes. At that time, many of the staff who worked with her in these roles were African Americans. After watching one particular aide order Mom around (and then get frustrated when Mom stubbornly wouldn’t do what the aide demanded), I decided that it was time to share a story that illustrated Mom as a person.

    I waited until a few days later when another aide (also African American) was on duty. This particular aide worked smoothly with Mom and seemed to focus more on Mom as a person. When she came in to assist Mom on a task, I carefully broached the subject, asking Mom whether she had told this aide the story about Mom enrolling me at my new elementary school in West Texas in 1970. When Mom said no, I proceeded to recount the tale of how Mom had asked that I be placed in the class of whichever teacher had the highest academic expectations for students. The school’s office staff reported that, in their opinion, that teacher was an African American man; would Mom have any concerns about placing me in his classroom? (Note that we were living in Texas at the time and the Civil Rights issues – such as segregation –  were playing out across the Lone Star State.) 

  • Mom repeated that she wanted to select the teacher who would challenge me the most academically  and said she had no problem enrolling me in this teacher’s classroom. As I completed telling the story, I reminded Mom that that teacher ended up being one of the best teachers I had during my educational experience, and that Mom had requested that my brother also be placed into this teacher’s class when he reached that grade several years later.
    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    As the aide continued her work to help Mom in the task, I watched carefully to see if she was listening  to this piece of Mom’s history; the aide was! Although no more mention was made that afternoon about the story of the teacher, I did notice a deepening in the relationship between Mom and this aide. I think this aide learned that my mom doesn’t judge people on skin color, but instead on who they are as a human being.

    This tale seemed to “humanize” my mom in the aide’s eyes.  For instance, this aide went out of her way to assist Mom when the secure unit was closed and its residents assigned to live in rooms throughout the nursing home. This aide (who was assigned to another hallway) would always check on Mom, assisting with bed-time rituals, and calming Mom down when she had an emotional outburst. (I also have a feeling – but no proof – that this story was shared with other aides who learned to value Mom as a person, instead of placing the disease first.)

    The lesson I learned is that I have to be Mom’s “historian” as her memory continues to fade. By sharing these types of stories with the nursing staff, I’m able to help them understand who Mom is, so they can focus on her as a person, instead of another case with Alzheimer’s disease.
Published On: May 24, 2007