Kimberly Hollifield headshot
Kimberly Hollifield

Dementia takes a person’s individuality and turns it upside down and sideways. At times, a strong and independent person becomes dependent on others for memories and personal safety. I only started to see how this could truly affect someone once I started working in a nursing facility — not just a basic nursing facility either; one of the best in our state.

Like so many of us in healthcare, no matter what our job title is, caring for our residents isn’t just an eight-hour shift. Events come to mind years after they happen. And so it was that I began thinking of my time as a desk clerk in a retirement community, where I observed many residents living with dementia. This experience made a big impression on me.

Things that we take for granted, such as remembering our names, when to eat and even where we are — these are just a few things that are a constant struggle for those living with dementia. It can rip the heart out of someone to see a loved one struggle to know who they are and not understand why they can’t find a spouse, mother, father, sister, brother or even a dog.

Along with the tragic side effects, however, there also can be things that make us laugh. People living with dementia can do and say some of the funniest things. People living with dementia can lose the filters that once made them proper ladies and gentlemen, and they may say whatever they want to whomever they want to say it. Knowing this is key for all who surround them. Getting offended just is not an option. When caring for someone in this stage of life, it’s better to roll with the punches and duck from the actual punches that might come your way.

Imagine this: You have been happily married for 50 years, and one day your spouse goes to the store, doctor or whatever, and then suddenly passes away. Your family tells you what happened, but the very next day you have no recollection of those events, and someone tells you for the second time that your spouse has, unfortunately, passed away. This person loses the love of their life again and again because each time they are told, it’s like hearing it for the first time. The grief is constant, and they never get to go through the grieving process like most people, where it hurts a little less each day. For them, it is always the first time and like a dagger though the heart.

A ballerina who still thinks she is in her 20s will hold onto the railing and dance as if she is preforming in the Nutcracker. She just happens to be the only one that hears the music. She might not be as graceful as she once was, but she is beautiful the same. Standing close and watching her, or telling her that is beautiful, gives this ballerina a feeling of validation. Dignity and validation are two things that we all want and need, no matter whether we are in the present or in our own memories.

A retired pilot who once had complete control of his mind and could fly anywhere in the world will lose cognition when dementia gets hold of his brain. Somedays, he is angry, and others jovial. The anger sets in when he has trouble remembering the words he wants to say. The anger is simply generated by his fear and lack of control, not out of malice.

Someone with dementia is likely to pull a fire alarm, just because at the alarm it says “pull here.” This person might also do this because he or she remembers that pulling one means that firefighters arrive and they like a person in uniform. This experience could be the highlight of their day.

Kindness, patience and respect are things that all human beings desire and should be given without question. This is no different when someone has dementia or any other type of illness.

In society today, people more than not tend to dismiss someone who only remembers the past. Maybe the past is the happiest memories this person has, so honoring this person by showing kindness is imperative. We all could use an extra dose of kindness, patience and respect. These things could change anyone’s day for the better.

Kimberly Hollifield has bee a Medicare billing specialist at Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community, Asheville, NC, since November 2013. She began working at Deerfield May 2011 as a desk clerk in the skilled nursing facility and while in that role was able to observe the various scenarios she has written about. “This essay is simply my perspective on how dementia affects an individual,” she says. “I still hold all of my experiences with these residents close to my heart.”

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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