My father had Alzheimer’s disease, and I found that many of the basics of talking with a demented person match those of talking to a toddler.
Both Alzheimer’s patients and toddlers speak their own truth, based on their experience. The caregiver has to be careful about saying “No” to something that strikes them as not true – this shuts their conversation partner down. When the care giver can see it from the other person’s point of view and keep the conversation going, good things happen.
When an Alzheimer’s patient says “my grandmother is coming over, we’re going to Paris on a steamship” the caregiver offers no benefit by “correcting” the speaker. Saying “No, that is impossible, your grandmother has been dead for 60 years, and we live in Kansas and there are no steamships anymore, anyway” might make the caregiver feel like he is really on it, but it doesn’t help the patient – in fact, it negates their experience, as well as causing (more) insecurity and (more) confusion.
So what about when a three year old says “In the spring, the leaves fly up in the air and stick themselves back onto the trees” or “Flowers make a sound that bees hear?” The caregiver could say “no” and demonstrate her mastery with a precise little biology lecture. While technically she’d be “correct,” and she’d be “teaching” little Einstein, she’d also kill the moment, and kill the thoughts and thinking offered by the child.
So, what do you say when the loved one you care for says something preposterous, or presents as truth something that seems crazy to you?
Some scientists say small children build understanding through “the cycle of theory repair.” They try an idea, and when it doesn’t work, they change it, until they find it’s good enough to stick with, or decide to watch a butterfly instead.
To facilitate this “brain-stretching” parents (and teachers) need to “keep the conversation going.” There is a great model for this, which is improv comedy, where actors improvise “in real time” – creating a scene as they go. On stage or a movie set, this process of “in-the-moment discovery” can lead to both humor and profound insight. The process can appear manic and chaotic to an audience, but there are strict “social rules” that allow the process of discovery to keep moving forward.
Wait until the Next Post : Hollywood Glamour with Tina Fey’s rules of Improv Comedy – applying them with toddlers and the demented, with examples.