I’ve worked on dementia units for most of my nursing career. I’ve had so many heartfelt moments with my patients and have watched as they change. As they lose their memory, they become younger in their thoughts and actions. They become more fragile in body, yet stronger in spirit. When I care for them, I live in their world.
I remember when one resident — I’ll call her Dorothy — started calling me Eunice. I never wore my name tag when I worked, so I just went with it.
Dorothy and I wore sun bonnets as we gardened together. The bonnets were round and had huge, floppy sides that could be pulled all the way down to our chins. Each bonnet had a flower on the side held on by a ribbon.
Gardening was our way of bringing color and the joy of growth and oxygen to the world. Together, we planted flower seeds and beans. The muscle memory for planting wasn’t there for Dorothy anymore, so when we worked in the garden, I would put my hands on top of her hands. It would appear to her that she was doing the work, but essentially, I was guiding her hands with my own.
Dorothy’s husband, a resident in the assisted living unit, visited her every day. In Dorothy’s mind they weren’t married, they were dating, so I planned candlelight dinners and movie nights for them.
I’d set a table for two decorated with battery-powered candles. Her husband — a true gentleman — would pull out her chair before and after eating, and after dinner he held her hand on the short stroll down the hall to the television room.
They often watched shows like “I Love Lucy” or “Bonanza,” along with the occasional episode of “Wheel of Fortune.” She would sit in the rocking recliner next to him holding his hand until the show was over or her mind couldn’t sit still anymore. The nights ended with a kiss on the cheek, and out the locked door of the dementia unit he would go until the next day when they did it all again as if for the first time.
Dorothy loved music, so we sang together, usually “You Are My Sunshine,” one of my son’s favorites. I sang it to her several times a day. When Dorothy became ill and was bedridden, I sang to her every time I saw her and held her hand. I would tell her that I’m there, and that it’s OK.
One night, Dorothy looked up at me from her bed, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking over my shoulder. “Eunice, I’m coming,” she said.
Later that night, Dorothy passed away. When her daughters came to pack up her things, I shared with them what she had said. They cried. Eunice was Dorothy’s sister. They showed me a picture that I hadn’t seen before — a picture of Dorothy and another girl in sun bonnets near a garden.
I still think of her every time I hear “You Are My Sunshine” or wear my sun bonnet.
My advice to nurses who care for patients with dementia is to not try to correct their thoughts. Live in their world. Enjoy the youthful thoughts they have. Don’t say it’s a dementia unit or ward. Call it a new world. If you change the way you think instead of trying to change the way they think, your world will open up and the sun will shine in.
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