All Flight Reactions Don’t Look the Same
by Alejandro DeJesus,
PAC Lead Mentor Coordinator
Hey, open your eyes. They came here to see you. C’mon, you opened them last time people came to see you. While she says it, she continues to grab his arm and shake a bit. I stand there for what seems like an eternity before I turn away. I go to take my coat off and completely turn my body away from what is happening, this is my flight response.
A flight response should only kick in when there is a threat. What’s the threat here? For me, it’s the way someone I love, who is living with dementia, is being talked to and treated. Taking my coat off removes me from the situation. Now my brain can no longer take in the visual and auditory data that is causing me distress. Without realizing it, my primitive brain helped me remove the threat. I get a moment to be away from the situation and until now all the knowledge in my pre-frontal cortex has meant absolutely nothing. My brain only starts to think of anything that is going to get me beyond reacting when I have separated myself a bit from the situation.
The knowledge in my pre-frontal cortex tells me that this person interacting with the person I care deeply for is unaware that what she is doing isn’t going to make a big difference. In addition to making him recoil by grabbing the back of his arm, there is also some faulty logic. Having a previous experience where someone interacted with a visitor in one way doesn’t mean that its going to happen the exact same way every time someone visits. People living with dementia are doing the best they can. During certification courses this phrase comes up almost every time, I usually add in and so are we as care partners.
A few minutes pass and we have gotten situated. I am ready to try something. My pre-frontal comes up with a plan. Compliment the person for working with him on lunch and give a short and simple Positive Action Starter. Here is what it sounds like in my head, Thanks so much for helping him with lunch. We are going to visit with him in his room. Before I get to do that, he is brought into his room. I do still get to say thanks and preserve a relationship.
I was happy to spend some time with Mr. Haffner that afternoon. He has been like a father to me. He was even the officiant at my wedding.
For more than 30 years he was a teacher. When he taught, he was known for jumping on tables, singing/rhyming, and getting students to remember improper fractions by describing them as Dolly Parton (let that one sink in for a moment). He was great at hooking new knowledge in with a positive amygdalae reaction. I don’t know for sure that he knew the brain science behind it, I wouldn’t put it past him. What I know for sure is that he knew it got his students to learn better.
The other threat to me in this whole situation is that the person I have known for so long has changed. I can’t make it the way it used to be, but I can continue to use PAC skills during visits and with everyone else that I interact with. I don’t really care if he opens his eyes when I visit again. Just getting to be there with him was enough to help me think about the great moments we spent together.
My favorite one, being at a Detroit Tiger’s game that ended in a walk-off grand slam win. It literally made him cry. I didn’t get teary eyed then, but I do now when I think about it. That was another amygdale moment for me that I shared with him, the difference is that it was a pleasure amygdalae reaction.