“I’m the Captain,” declared my 3-year old nephew Enzo as soon as he boarded our boat on a warm autumn day last fall. Wearing the captain’s hat his mother had purchased for him on Amazon.com, he purposefully strode to the captain’s seat. When he noticed our family’s amusement at his audacity, he looked directly at us and repeated, “I’m the Captain. I am.”
Obviously when my husband was ready to launch the boat we needed Enzo to move. But did we sit him down and logically explain to him that he was not the Captain? No. We told Enzo that it was Uncle Sean’s turn to drive the boat and that he could have a turn later. Enzo considered the statement, resisted briefly and then reluctantly moved to sit with his parents and cousins.
Could we have attempted to reason with Enzo? Sure. Would it have done any good? Probably not. I can only imagine how explaining to a 3-year old that he did not have the credentials to launch a 34-foot cruiser. It probably would have gone over as well as trying to reason with someone who has advanced dementia.
People who suffer with advanced dementia are adults. They are grown-ups who have lived full lives and are most certainly not children. But as Alzheimer’s disease (or any other dementia) progresses, their ability to reason is comparable to a small child’s.
Nobody tried to reason with Enzo because we understood that he didn’t have the capacity to understand he lacked the skills to captain a boat. But why is it that the same people who wouldn’t attempt to reason with a child try to do so with someone with dementia?
Countless times I have witnessed well-meaning, intelligent people try to “remind” their loved one with dementia that she is no longer allowed to drive. Or that he has already eaten dinner. Or that it is winter when their loved one is convinced that it’s summer. And I can see why. Dementia is tricky.
There might be a moment in the day that Mom will remember that she is not supposed to drive. But as the disease progresses, no amount of arguing, rationalizing, reasoning or logic will convince Mom that her doctor told her to stop driving.
Tell Mom you feel like driving today rather than reminding her that she is unsafe behind the wheel. Just as it wouldn’t have been productive to tell Enzo he’s not qualified to be a boat captain, it wouldn’t be productive to tell Mom the whole family is afraid of her driving.
Treat your older loved one who has dementia with dignity because he’s an adult. But remember that his capacity to understand logic and reason is often child-like.
Jennifer L. FitzPatrick – MSW, LCSW-C, CSP
The founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc., Jennifer FitzPatrick has over 20 years’ experience in healthcare and gerontology. The author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One, she is also a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University. She helps you reduce stress and increase productivity, morale and revenue. Jennifer and Cruising Through Caregiving have been featured in Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, The Huffington Post, Reader’s Digest, Univision and The Chicago Tribune. She has also appeared on ABC and Sirius XM.