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Dementia and Finding Those Missing Keys (Purse, Glasses …)

by Judy Cornish

People who have dementia are constantly losing things. This is a tremendous source of stress for not only themselves but their caregivers, housekeepers, friends, and family members. When you don’t have the ability to recall what happened a few minutes ago, let alone this morning, it can seem more likely that someone took your wallet or hairbrush than that you misplaced it. And, when dementia is part of the picture, more often than not the missing item will eventually be found someplace very odd indeed.

How can we help someone who is constantly distressed about losing things?

With our clients at DAWN, we face this issue almost daily. Our response is to take their focus off the problem—the absence of the item—and turn their focus to the process of finding whatever it is that has gone missing.

Losing things is a natural result of dementia. When we accept it as inevitable, it’s easier to not be upset. Two very important happen things when we avoid reacting with frustration, and then focus or on the process of searching rather than panicking.

We build teamwork and de-emphasize mastery

People experiencing dementia are becoming ever less able to accomplish tasks or solve problems on their own. Losing competency is very distressing. We spend our entire lives becoming masters at tasks, activities, and problem-solving. Children gradually acquire the skills needed to perform their own personal hygiene tasks, feed themselves, and follow directions. They grow older and drive cars, navigate the education system, and become more tech savvy than their parents. They learn to cook, mow lawns, find a good mechanic, order take-out. The list of daily tasks that we master as we age into adulthood endless.

Until dementia appears. It takes away these abilities one by one. When we fail repeatedly, we eventually give up and retreat into passivity. Dementia requires teamwork—we need someone who will help us learn to give up being a master and accept being a teammate. We need companions who will partner with us to accomplish tasks.

Searching for something together is an excellent way to partner in solving a problem—so long as the caregiver is helping the loved one or client focus on the process of finding the item.

Relief comes in following a process

If I have lost my purse or my hearing aid or my glasses, I have a big problem: something essential or valuable is beyond my reach and I rightfully feel distressed. But if I have dementia, my problem is bigger: I’m also missing the two tools I most need to solve my first problem—memory and the rational thought processes that allow me to strategize and follow a series of steps. I’m also unable to arrive at the place where I can say to myself, “Well, I’ve done everything I can do. It will eventually turn up. I can turn my attention to something else now.”

Yet, if I am with someone who partners with me and leads me through the process of searching, we have a good chance of finding the lost item; a systematic search is usually successful. However, the best result is that having someone partner with me keeps me from repeatedly internalizing the feeling of being out of control and at risk. There is a degree of success and relief in just being able to take steps and follow a process, in knowing we’ve done what we can.

As caregivers it’s important to give our loved ones the sense of success that comes from following a process. When we lead them, without getting angry or worried, through a systematic search for whatever it is missing, we turn an episode of panic into an opportunity to show them that they are safe and empowered through partnership with us.

Caregivers who are teammates help their loved ones avoid distress and insecurity and, as a result, avoid developing passivity from facing constant failure. When something goes missing, take advantage of the opportunity to partner with your loved one.

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