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Dementia and the Grocery Store

by Judy Cornish

Running errands with someone who has dementia can be very trying. Here are two tips that will make it easier. It really doesn’t matter where it is you need to go—the grocery store, the bank, the hardware store, the insurance company—you can avoid frustration and have a more companionable time if you help your loved one get what they need most from the experience: sensory and social stimulation.

How to make shopping with someone with dementia more fun.

Here at DAWN we’ve found two secrets to having a good time in the community with someone experiencing dementia: (1) be sure your focus is on the person (not the task); and (2) search out the beautiful. This may sound a little strange, so let me explain.

Focus on the person not the task.

As people progress deeper into dementia, they lose the ability to understand deadlines or imagine how much time has passed. They become increasingly limited to what is called the psychological present. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman says our sense of “now” lasts about 3 seconds. Without the ability to use rational thought functions, such as planning or foresight, or the ability to grasp cause and effect, people with dementia are living in the three-second present. And without memory or planning, that present can feel like an eternity.

Functioning in a world of deadlines and tasks therefore requires us as caregivers to communicate to our companions that we care about them, not about completing a task or meeting a deadline. If our goal is to have a good time with them, their experience will be that of doing something enjoyable with someone who loves them. If our goal is to run an errand or meet a deadline, they can’t help but experience abandonment and disempowerment. The latter always results in discord rather than companionship.

Here at DAWN, we have found that if we stay focused on our clients, they feel that we enjoy being them, and tasks and deadlines become more easily accomplished.

It may seem counter intuitive, but focusing on your loved one is your best chance to succeed at running an errand, making a deadline, or accomplishing a task.

Search out the beautiful.

Beauty is everywhere, if you’re looking for it. The florist department may seem like the only place to find something pretty in a grocery store, but when you’re in the produce department pick up any piece of fruit and look at it. Fruit and vegetables are colorful, intricate and interesting if not beautiful. Do you need to pick up a can of soup or box of cereal? Look closely at the packaging: cans and boxes are designed to be pleasing to the eye. Are you shopping for cheese? The shiny red packaging of a gouda or bright orange of cheddar is very appealing.

Look for beauty in colors and patterns, but also in smells and textures. In a hardware store there are is so much to see, touch and smell: displays of paint chips, bins of drawer pulls, coils of rope. In offices, there are calendars, plants on people’s desks, interesting gadgets. Be on the lookout for something that will provide your loved one with new and pleasing sensory stimuli.

Treat every errand as a treasure hunt—a search for something new or pleasing. Our loved ones and clients still have the ability to recognize beauty. We can enjoy it with them. And, when we do, errands become opportunities for companionship.


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