The couple, a man and woman, stood just outside the door of the Scandinavian Home, arguing. The autumn leaves from the towering elms on the grounds of the nursing home swirled around their feet as the cold wind snatched their voices away.
“I told you Tom, I don’t want to go back today. I am afraid of some of those people. You know how much I hate scenes and last Saturday Bridget yelled at us and told us that nobody wanted us there. I just froze when she took off her slipper and started hitting that other woman on the head with it. You knew what to do, how to calm her down, I just stood there, frozen to the spot. Anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m just a Montessori teacher, you’re the gerontologist, you’re the specialist on aging, you’re the one who spent the last six years researching dementia. I’m not going in. I’ll wait in the car for you.”
He took her hand.
“I know this is kind of scary sometimes, but what about the other thing that happened last Saturday? You know, when you had everyone singing together, even Don, who never says a word. He was singing and clapping and for a few minutes, he was connected again. That’s why we’re here, that’s what we do.”
“I know, Tom, I know that’s what we’re supposed to do, to help people reconnect, but I am so much more comfortable in a room full of little kids. You’re the expert, not me. I don’t know what I’m dong.”
“Come on, Karen, we’re in this thing together. We’ll learn how to do this as we go. We’re a great team, aren’t we? I mean, we’ve been married forever, we’ve raised great kids, so we can do this together, too.”
“Right, a great team. If we’re so great at this, how come Bridget hates us? Anyway, we argue all the time, we’re arguing now. What makes you think we can work together?”
He picked up her hand again.
“Because we are meant to do this, because we beat cancer together, because I can’t do this without you.”
He pushed open the door and pulled her in with him and with his lopsided smile whispered to her,
“Anyway, Bridget doesn’t hate us, Bridget hates you!”
When they walked in the door of the Scandinavian Home that Saturday afternoon, Bridget was once again hitting Elsa over the head with her slipper. Bridget’s bright orange hair stood up around her head as though the anger in her body was electrifying her hair. Elsa, much smaller and older than Bridget stood meekly, her only movement a slight raising of her shoulders as Bridget’s slipper rained blows on her head. Karen stood rooted to the ground, she was afraid of Bridget on her good days; she had no idea what to do with Bridget when she was violent. There was no staff around, no other visitors, just Tom and Karen. Tom walked calmly up to Bridget and put his hand on her raised arm.
“Every thing is OK, Bridget. You can stop now.”
“You aren’t my doctor, are you? “ She looked up at Tom through narrowed eyes.
“No, but I am your friend, and everything is fine now.”
Bridget jerked her arm out of Tom’s grip and straightened her posture with an attempt to regain some semblance of dignity. She sat heavily on a nearby chair and put her slipper
back on her foot and then stomped away without any apology to Elsa or any acknowledgement of Tom and Karen. Elsa rubbed her head and tears began to fall down her wrinkled, papery cheeks. Tom led her to a comfortable seat and began to talk quietly to Elsa while Karen went in search of a nurse or an aide or someone who could help Elsa. Her knees were shaking. What on earth were they doing here?
That was the way we began our work in dementia care, learning from our mistakes, finding out what worked and trying to understand why it worked. We have had the enormous good fortune of meeting people with dementia who were kind and patient and generous with us. We also met lots of Bridgets, people who wanted nothing to do with us, who were difficult, sometimes violent. We learned from these hard cases that if we didn’t give up on them, we could find a way to reach even them.
With Bridget, it was a simple video camera that did the trick. She recognized that it was a camera and that we were making a film. Suddenly, Bridget was full of charm as she sashayed back in forth in front of the camera, smiling and glancing coyly over her shoulder at the lens. That was the very important lesson that Bridget taught us: Be prepared to be surprised!
Through field testing the Montessori Method for dementia care, we found out what absolutely would not work and we discovered what worked really well. For us, success is measured in a smile, wide awake eyes, laughter; some sign, no matter how small, that we are helping people with dementia connect once again. We have learned to be careful observers, to see the tiny step forward, the small improvement, the flash of joy. We know that we cannot cure the condition or bring back a fully functioning person; but we also know that we can share with you our experiences of discovery and connection.