Understanding Changes Everything

Understanding Changes Everything post page

Mary Donnelly

By Mary DonnellyAugust 15th, 2019

Understanding Changes Everything

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by Mary Donnelly
PAC Certified Independent
Trainer, Consultant, Mentor and Speaker


The first time I heard the phrase “Understanding changes everything,” it was from a speaker whose presentation had nothing to do with dementia. 

She was speaking about dogs.

Kim Brophey, a nationally-credentialed dog behaviorist and author of Meet Your Dog, facilitates problem-solving between people and dogs. Using information about each dog’s background – a system she calls LEGS, for Learning, Environment, Genetics, and Self - she is able to put together an individual picture of how and why dogs think and behave as they do. Then, by sharing this information with their human owners, she helps them see their dogs in a new light. She creates a bridge between owners and their dogs – a bridge based on understanding.

Where had I heard that concept before? Then it hit me – this is like Teepa’s Six Pieces of the Puzzle! Both are tools that help us look beyond the surface – beyond the behaviors – to create a clearer understanding of WHY this is happening…and more important, how we can better respond to it.

Dogs do not have the intellectual capacity of insight and perception that humans do. They are dogs. They react in ways that are different from the ways we would react – but in ways that are appropriate for who they are and the circumstances they are in. We, on the other hand, tend to expect them to respond as we want them to respond. And we are frequently disappointed, frustrated, or even angry when they don’t.

Without meaning to, we often find ourselves doing the same thing to people living with dementia, people whose brains are not functioning the way they used to or the way we expect them to. We are oblivious to how many times through the day our loved ones are struggling – and that they are doing the best they can given their new limitations. We forget that they have a condition which has altered how they act and respond. Dogs can’t change how they think – and because of the damage to their brains, neither can people with dementia. We, with our fully-functioning thought processes, are the only ones who can change how we respond.

Kim tells a story that illustrates this situation perfectly. It’s about a dog named Dexter who was a happy and well-adjusted pet for several years until he and his owner moved from their farm to a cabin out in the country. Dexter’s behavior changed immediately. He paced the walls, whining and scratching. He refused to eat or sleep. He stopped playing with his toys. He became, in his owner’s words, “neurotic.” The vet was about to start Dexter on Prozac, but instead he called Kim. She visited Dexter at his home and observed his behavior, agreeing that it was indeed strange. But she didn’t stop there. She started digging deeper, looking first at Dexter’s genetic background – a terrier – and then at Dexter’s own recent past living on a farm. Then, instead of recommending a prescription, she recommended an exterminator.

What he discovered confirmed Kim’s suspicions: the cabin’s walls were full of mice! Dexter – who had spent the previous years of his life quietly and efficiently ridding the farm of vermin – could now smell and hear all those mice in the walls but couldn’t reach them. His instinct to get to them was overpowering, but his ability to communicate it to his owner was limited. Dexter communicated in Dogspeak – whining, scratching, pawing, barking. He was communicating in the only language he knew. His behavior was completely appropriate, given the situation he was in. Was it his fault that his owner didn’t understand? 

Because she understood Dogspeak, Kim was able to see Dexter’s behavior with different eyes. She was able to take what she knew about him – his background, his past life, his conduct – and figure out what might be causing him to act this way. Rather than assuming there was something wrong with Dexter, she looked for another explanation, something that could have triggered this sudden and unusual behavior. And she found it.

Had she not, Dexter would have been given an undeserved label of neurotic and would have been administered medication to control the behavior. However, the mice would still have been there, so the cause of his distress would not have been addressed. How much medication would it have taken to override Dexter’s powerful urge to do his job? And what effect would that much medication have had on his quality of life? 

Yes, understanding can change everything. Just as Kim’s philosophy helps us to view our dogs in a wholly different way, so too does learning about dementia teach us a new way to interact with persons living with this disease. There isn’t a magic formula or easy 1-2-3 method to manage dementia. But using tools like Teepa’s Six Pieces of the Puzzle can help us learn a better way to respond to it.

Because you can’t change what you don’t understand. 

Mary Donnelly, who cared for her mother with Alzheimer’s for ten years, first heard Teepa speak in 2005 and the experience set her on the path to becoming a dementia educator. She began with MemoryCare, an Asheville NC nonprofit medical clinic, serving as the MemoryCaregivers Network Coordinator, facilitating monthly support groups, editing an online bi-monthly newsletter, Caregiver Network News, and being a frequent speaker on dementia issues.  Mary joined Teepa and PAC in 2015, and currently holds multiple roles as Mentor/Trainer/Consultant/Speaker. Mary, a 1973 graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, is also a Certified Validation Practitioner. When she’s not working, Mary can often be found on a hiking trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or when weather permits, on cross-country skis. Her car’s license plate reads 02BNSNOW, a reference to two of her favorite things: winter and Teepa!  Mary lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband Tom and their celebrity dog Sammy.


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