“Where’s my college ring?” This had become Dad’s mantra during some months of his early demented years. I knew he hadn’t gotten a ring when he graduated from college. His college career was interrupted by World War II, then work and a family. He went back to school during his work career. I, at age fourteen, attended his college graduation. I suppose, with a family to support, he didn’t think a college ring was important. He didn’t order one. He never owned one. But no way would he believe that now, as a man in his late seventies with heavy-duty dementia.
Normally, during his dementia, I just went along with whatever he thought. I knew in my gut, soon after surgery to drain fluid from his brain damaged during the war backfired, leaving him with a voice in his head and severe dementia. that trying to argue dad back into what most of us call the “real world” was not only senseless, but cruel.
During his worst times, it seemed like unreasonable torture to disagree with him, unless we absolutely had to. I learned to go with the flow. He thought he’d graduated from a college where he’d just taken some classes before the war? I made him a “degree” and hung it on his wall. He thought the people on TV news were talking to him? I settled him down and left orders with the nurse to not allow the news on in his room. He was to have his music and his science shows. Those people “talking to him” were fine.
However, when this request for his “lost” college ring popped up, it evolved into a passion. It wasn’t an idea he could be diverted from. I tried hard, as I knew we couldn’t get him the graduation year he wanted, I wasn’t sure we could have one made at a non-graduation time and besides, they were expensive. But there was no deterring him and he was so passionate I finally gave in.
I tracked down a way to get a ring for him. Since he graduated from the same college as my oldest son was attending, I ordered my son’s graduation year. I wasn’t sure my son would even want a ring, but I knew he’d one day at least enjoy the keepsake of his grandpa’s ring.
I spent a lot of time and money on this endeavor to make my wonderful, demented father happy about just one thing. As Dad’s health deteriorated and he lost weight, we had to put tape on the ring to keep it on his finger. But he treasured that ring. It was worth every bit of time and expense to give him some moments of happiness.
I could have argued with him until the sky turned green about this issue. But what was the point? We got him the ring. It hurt no one to let him think he had gotten it at graduation and now he had it back.
This is only one example of the effect of not arguing about “facts” with someone who has a different view of facts than you have. To someone with dementia, what they believe is just as true as what you and I believe to be true is to us.
There were times, of course, when I couldn’t agree with Dad. Once, someone had left his TV on in his room at the nursing home at news time. It was national news with war footage and when I went into Dad’s room he was frantic. There was war in the streets of Fargo (our town).
“No, Dad, that’s TV news. The war is in Iraq,” I’d said.
“Don’t lie to me There’s a war. I see it! Don’t lie to me,” he nearly yelled. He was frightened. He knew he was helpless. Tears streamed down my face.
“No, Dad. Let’s go to the window and look outside. The war is in Iraq!”
“Don’t lie to me!”
My sweet, good natured Dad was nearly unrecognizable to me. I stayed a long time that evening and never really got him to believe me. No matter how many nurses and CNAs I asked to back me up, he wouldn’t believe us. He had seen it and to him it was real.
That was a hellish night and not the only one we experienced. I couldn’t agree with him on that issue. No way could I say, “Sure, Dad, there’s a war outside in the street as we speak.”
So, getting into their heads, as I call the technique of agreeing, and making the reality of a person suffering from dementia as near to their beliefs as possible, doesn’t always work. I ran myself ragged trying to do this for Dad. But there are times when all we can do is weather the worst. Sometimes, as with the war footage, all we can do is try to comfort them and get them through to the next cycle. But why would we want to do that when we don’t have to? Isn’t it easier to agree that the sky is green that day than swear it’s blue? Who does it hurt?
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.