Have you experienced situations in which a person living with dementia seems unaware of where they are, or they ask to see their little child while not remembering that they are long grown up? It could be something like your mom calling and explaining that she’s lost, just for you to realize from conversation that she’s really standing in her kitchen.
When a person is living with dementia (PLwD), there are times when their life gets turned around. For you as their care partner, one of the first things you want to recognize is: wow, they’re not here anymore, they’ve made a trip to somewhere else.
What that trip actually means is that their hippocampus, or learning center of their brain, has relocated them to another time or place. A healthy brain keeps the timeline of our life in chronological order, from childhood to adulthood. However, when dementia sets in, this timeline may no longer work correctly, causing the person to think they really are in another place or time at that very moment.
As a care partner, one of the biggest mistakes you can make in a situation like this is to force them to come back to where you are. You have to realize, if the person was able to return to the actual time or place, they would.
Rather, try to figure out at which time or place they are, and join them there instead. Look for ways to support the person in their current state of reality until there’s a way to ease them back into the now.
Another common care partner approach that can easily turn into a mistake is to make up little lies like: Oh, they called from work and said you don’t have to go in today. Unless you know the person’s history really, really well, this can backfire and worsen the situation overall. And one misstep is all it takes for them to lose their trust and become suspicious, possibly making future interactions even harder.
What to Do Instead
Instead of taking the usual approach of wanting to fix what’s wrong - get curious! Ask yourself what it is your PLwD might be wanting or needing in this moment.
Why are they going to this place in their mind?
What is really driving their request?
If we’re not willing to get curious about what’s taking them to a particular place, phase, or time, then we totally miss the meaning. And that meaning usually is: I don’t know what to do here, I don’t know how to be here, or there is a place that can help me as long as I can get there.
Try repeating the questions back to your PlwD, asking them to tell you more about what it is they want. That can help you figure out what really might be going on.
By exploring and being curious, you can figure out what it is about the now that doesn’t feel right to your person living with dementia. Your willingness to let go of what’s not working can become the critical piece that is needed to actually make it work.
Want to learn even more about this very topic? Watch Teepa's webinar recording, and get many more practical tips and insights so you know how to best help when your person living with dementia is lost in time or space. Click here to browse available webinars today!