Living in My Shoes

Vicky Pitner   -  

Imagine waking up in the morning confused and not being able to recognize where you are. Imagine walking out of the bedroom and your daughter appears and immediately questions why you are not dressed. Your daughter, who you might not recognize at first, immediately begins to “remind” you of the doctor appointment that you have been told about several times, even as recent as last night. Imagine you are unable to retain new information and did not know of the appointment, so imagine how you might respond.

You likely would deny knowing about the appointment, or even argue that you do not need to see a doctor, as you feel fine. Continue to imagine how this interaction can become intense and both you and your daughter begin to argue. Image the shame you feel because you didn’t remember the appointment and the fear you feel about seeing a doctor you don’t need. Imagine the emotional pain you feel because you want your family member to feel the same emotions as you. Imagine you have dementia.

This is a simple example of what a person living with dementia may feel when they are experiencing confusion. Likely, the above scenario led to a conflict that lasted all morning and the appointment likely had to be cancelled. Being able to show deep empathy for a person with dementia results in outcomes that are much more productive and pleasant. By being able to connect to the person and feel their emotions, you can better understand and interact with the person more calmly and effectively.

It is not always easy. But practicing your efforts to identify with the person’s emotions will result in better relationships, less arguing, and create a shared and meaningful connection. So let’s try this same scene again, but using an empathetic approach.

Imagine you wake up confused and do not recognize where you are. You walk out of the  bedroom and your daughter greets you with a smile. She says good morning and invites you into the kitchen for coffee. Imagine you are a bit hesitant, but your daughter walks over and takes your arm gently and says something to the effect of, “You know how your daughter Debbie loves to have coffee as much as you! I have it ready! Have I told you I love you today?”

Imagine how you become more oriented and comforted by a familiar smile, a kind touch, and the beginning to a routine you have likely enjoyed most of your adult life. While having your coffee, imagine your daughter apologizing to you for not letting you know of a doctor’s appointment that morning, but assures you there is plenty of time and you will enjoy breakfast afterwards at a favorite restaurant. Then imagine her asking you how you feel about that.

Lastly, imagine how validated, understood, and loved you feel because your daughter made an effort to recognize your feelings. Empathy can help you to understand the pain, confusion, shame and grief of stepping into the shoes of a person with dementia. But shifting your perspective doesn’t mean you only see things intellectually, but asking questions so assumptions are not made and feelings are not misinterpreted.

People living with dementia still have emotions, feelings, observations, insights, and opinions, but when we discount the person, and take away their dignity because we have a certain agenda (getting to the doctor’s appointment) rather than go with their agenda (waking up slowly, confused and needing the reassurance of trust and safety), the days will become less stressful and relationships can be more meaningful.

If you would like more information on our Memory Ministry, Memory Cafe, or support trainings we offer, please contact Vicky Pitner at