I attended the Green House Projects’ annual conference in Louisville last month and it was a pleasure to be with so many innovative and dedicated people working together to support people living with dementia (PLWD). The Green House Project’s small home model is a disrupter to the impersonal clinical environment found in most skilled nursing facilities. Their small homes create an environment that facilitates respect and personalized choices based on deep knowing of each elder living in the home.
One of the sessions at the Conference that really was amazing was hearing from Michael Belleville who is a dementia advocate and a PLWD. Mike spoke very directly about what it was like to receive the diagnosis of dementia. Not surprisingly, his physician didn’t offer much helpful information and Mike and his family were left on their own to figure out their future together.
After initially “hiding under a rock”, Mike gained the strength to reach out and become socially connected again. He credits his social activities as crucial to helping maintain his abilities and sense of purpose. Mike not only reconnected socially, but he looked around to see how he could help others. Mike has a tech background and volunteers helping others with their computer problems (yes please! Could Mike make a house call?) and he also started a new career as a dementia advocate, working with the Dementia Action Alliance. So when you hear someone say, “Oh he has dementia, he can’t contribute, he can’t do anything, he won’t know the difference, he can’t…”, think of Mike and all of his talents and contributions!
Sharing his experiences with others helps get the message out there that even after diagnosis, you still have a life to live, you still have a voice and can still learn new skills! Proof is that Mike recently discovered he is a wonderful watercolor painter and showed some examples of his work at the Green House conference. You can see Mike here on the DAA podcast, This Dementia Life, discussing his new-found painting skills .
So Mike said he felt it was important to “Get busy living!” And my question to all of us, as care professionals, is whether it is our own fears and misperceptions that put unnecessary limits on PLWD and keep them from being the person they can still be, that keep them from “living”?
If you work in a nursing home or assisted living or an adult day care setting, look around you at the people who live there. If the first thing that comes to your mind is the list of their losses and inabilities, doesn’t that indicate you are allowing the diagnosis of dementia to define them? Are you seeing them as an individual person or are you only seeing their dementia? I know as a nurse I’ve been trained to assess and focus on a patient’s debilities rather than their strengths.
Instead, try looking at each person as an individual with abilities, interests and talents that we may not even yet know about. What can you do to support them to have choices, to try new experiences and express themselves? That would be a great gift to give in 2019 to PLWD!