We all want to be liked.
Have you ever tried being liked and telling your parent or partner what to do? That’s where it can get tricky. Add dementia to the mix, and it can feel like you’re walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon without a net.
At the same time, your role is Mr or Ms Responsibility. Whether you already know the diagnosis or not, you have a nagging sense something isn’t right. Against your will, you’re collecting a mounting stack of evidence things aren’t as they were, or should be.
But sometimes people need help, and they don’t realize it.
The sense you should do something escalates, but what? When? How?
Because I know taking in a flood of information all at once can quickly start to feel overwhelming, we’ll look at just a few signs in each area, and only one area per week. (But if you like to sneak ahead, you can download the list of signs in each area.)
Today we’ll cover the first area, safety awareness and judgment. I’ll cover what to do, when to do it, and–maybe most important–how to intervene in such a way your parent or partner will still like you!
Signs of Diminished Safety Awareness & Impaired Judgment
Sign: Leaving the burner on or pots/pan unattended on the stove
We’ve all walked away from a dish simmering on the stove for a minute or two, and maybe even become sidetracked.
The difference for people with cognitive impairment is they don’t remember the stove is on until the pan melts or a fire starts. Sometimes, they’ll also deny they were even cooking, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. (This isn’t lying; for an in-depth explanation, see Dementia, Confabulation, Conflation, and The Truth.)
Why it’s a big deal: FIRE! One question I ask when I’m doing a home safety assessment is, “If there was a fire in your home, what would you do?”
The right answer, of course, is, “Get out of the house and call 911,” but the answer I most often hear (after a lengthy pause to come up with an answer) is, “Look for a towel to put it out.”
When to intervene: ASAP. If it’s happened once, I promise you it will happen again if you don’t intervene.
Although we’d like to think a smoldering pan that sets off the smoke alarm is a scary enough experience that our person will never do it again, the truth is our person has dementia. That’s what caused the diminished safety awareness and impaired judgment that led to her walking away from the stove and forgetting all about it in the first place.
Intervention quick tip: Remove the knobs from the stove or replace them with safety knobs.
Sign: Unsafe driving practices
Why it’s a big deal: Remember the man who accelerated rather than braking, running down people in an outdoor farmers’ market?
He killed 10 people and injured 63 more. It turned out that wasn’t his first accident. He was both prosecuted and sued; cognitive loss is not a defense.
This is an extreme case; what I typically hear ranges from getting lost for hours in previously very familiar locations, to driving through the garage door, hitting posts, and running up curbs.
When to intervene: A good question to ask yourself is, “Would I feel comfortable and confident with my child/grandchild in the car and Dad behind the wheel?” Still not sure? Take the Is It Time To Intervene? Driving Quiz to help you figure out the right answer.
Intervention quick tip: Remove a spark plug to disable the vehicle.
Sign: Letting strangers in the home
Why it’s a big deal: All it takes for a stranger to gain entry is standing on the doorstep with a big smile and projecting a sense of “I belong here.” That front door swings wide open.
People with dementia often think they should know the person on the step, and in an attempt to cover their impairment will “play along” and invite the stranger inside.
Don’t believe me? Virtually every time I’m arranging to go do an assessment, the family says, “The only problem, Christy, is my mom will never let you in the house.” The truth is, family care partners would be absolutely horrified if they saw how easy it is for me to get in the house!
Of course, I like to think it’s so easy because I’m bringing good energy and the person with dementia senses they’ll be safe with me. But the reality is they have diminished safety awareness and impaired judgment.
When to intervene: ASAP. Your person is no longer safe being home alone.
Intervention quick tip: Have a trusted family member, friend, or neighbor, or a home care aide move in with your person until you figure out your next (more permanent) intervention.
How to Stay Popular
Embody the good stuff
As in every other interaction you have with your person, get yourself in the right space first. Take a deep breath in, then do a long and loud exhale, getting rid of your fear and anxiety. Now you’ve got space to call in the good stuff: respect, kindness, love, compassion, empathy.
Use the good stuff on yourself first. You’re going through a tough time. This is a challenging situation. You’ll make it through to the other side no matter what, but it’ll be a lot easier if you treat yourself with respect, kindness, love, compassion, and empathy. You deserve that. You’re worthy.
Put a target on someone else (AKA a professional’s) back.
Always throw the doctor under the bus! “Of course I know you’re a full-grown adult, Mom. It’s the doctor who says you need a full-time assistant.”
Is your mom likely to tell you the doctor is full of crap and completely clueless? Absolutely, she is. And that’s okay. Join in! Be on her team. Tell her you get why she’s got a bee in her bonnet about her doctor. Tell her you’d be triple pissed, too, if your own doctor said that.
Then use your super power to step into the moment with her and be the super hero you are. Let her know there’s absolutely, positively no way on God’s green earth you will ever, for even a second, let her go through this on her own because you are 100% on her side and you’ve got her.
Need expert help? Schedule a complimentary dementia care partner strategy call with me!
Christy Turner is a speaker and consultant, the founder of DementiaSherpa.com, and creator of the program What To Do When Your Parent or Partner Has Dementia. She’s a regular contributor on The Alzheimer’s Podcast with her segments “Guiding You Through Rough Terrain with The Dementia Sherpa.” Christy has enjoyed the privilege of working with over 1200 people living with dementia and their families.