The story that immediately pops to mind happened a little over a year ago. I hadn’t met very many individuals with dementia who had stopped speaking until my mom moved into a memory care community. While I had experienced periods with my parents when one of them would be quiet on a visit and they seemed unsure of what to say, they never stopped speaking until the last few days of their lives. So I had more direct experience with my last post on don’t assume they can’t understand you because they are silent.
I still smile when I remember my visits when Gwen would join us. She would only join us when we were sitting off to ourselves, and usually focused on a craft of some sort. She always had a relaxed way about her, but always seem to want to hide the things we were working with. She would subtly remove a paint brush, or a feather, and seemed to wait to see if anyone noticed. I was glad we used non-toxic paint when she decided to drink my cup of paint water on the table before I could stop her.She looked right in my eyes and grinned before I could get out a word. She never did want to join us in our activity, but every time she joined us, I felt like a little bit of my dad had arrived. He was always the jokester.
One day, when another resident came over to join us, Gwen stuck out her finger so that when the other resident sat down, she would get a poke to the rear. While the resident didn’t notice, Gwen burst out into giggles and I quickly joined her when I found the resident wasn’t harmed or offended (thankfully).
I never really thought about it at the time, but looking back realize how much I had learned about spending time with someone who has dementia. I was ready to accept and visit the person that was showing up to spend time with me that day. Although, I never had a conversation with Gwen, we sure did have a few laughs together. Enjoyed.
Early on, before we had a diagnosis but recognized something was wrong, I would try to over-explain things. This would only make my mom more talkative as she tried to ask questions but usually the conversation would get jumbled up and veer off in an unusual direction.
My dad on the other hand got silent. Whether it was because he didn’t want to talk, wasn’t sure what to say, or had no interest, I will never know. What I did find was that when my mom would start questioning him, he would just go silent. We initially thought our dad was depressed, and most likely he was, but he was also in the early stages of Alzheimer’s when we first noticed his silence.
Later, my dad got into the habit of saying “It’s a nothing-burger” when I raised something he didn’t want to deal with and to my mom would just reply “I don’t know” to defuse her rapidly escalating anxiety.
What I would realize after a few months of pure frustration on my part was that my dad did understand, did know the answer, but just didn’t want to discuss the matter.
I carried this knowledge with me through my mom’s move into a memory care community. There were quite a few silent residents who would respond with a smile at a simple “Hello” or would immediately come join you when invited to sit outside on a park bench. Even through my mom could talk, she started to talk less. It felt like she was feeling less sure of the words coming out of her mouth. Some days, she would be up for a lively conversation, and others, she would just wait until I shared another story.
Some much of what you learn is to see and respond to the person in front of you today. What my mom liked last year, or even yesterday, may not be something she cares for today. I was never one to find silence uncomfortable, so sitting outside with mom and just enjoying our surroundings became one of my treasured activities. Some days, I can still imagine she is right by my side when I close my eyes. Treasured.