In my 2013 blog post ‘What is dementia’ I focused on the symptoms of dementia, noting the following amongst my very long list of ways in which a person can be affected by dementia:
“An increasing need for reassurance (someone who was previously independent becoming clingy or losing confidence), or a need to be constantly reminded about things”
Back then, I wasn’t aware of the phrase ‘trailing’ or describing a person with dementia as ‘following’ others around. I literally just thought of the need to be close to someone you trust as a need for reassurance.
However, watching the recent BBC Documentary ‘Granddad, dementia and me’, the phrase ‘obsessed’ was used repeatedly to explain Tom (who is living with vascular dementia) needing to be close to his wife (and carer) Pam. Tom’s need to be constantly with Pam had, for Pam, got to a point where she needed some time away from Tom.
The film throws up numerous issues which I will explore in my August D4Dementia blog, but I think the need Tom had to be close to Pam, and the effect on Tom and Pam’s wellbeing when they were happily reunited towards the end of the documentary, is a really interesting one.
From the perspective of a spouse or family member, if you are used to your loved one being fairly independent, the way in which dementia can leave a person without the confidence to be on their own can be difficult to understand, adjust to or successfully support. Many spouses or family members end up feeling suffocated and like they haven’t got a minute to themselves. This was very strongly portrayed in ‘Granddad, dementia and me’ which in the early part of the film really made Tom look – to someone without a good understanding of dementia – like he was a nightmare to live with.
Look behind the visuals a TV camera provides, however, and the story is a different one. Firstly, the changes in his brain caused by his vascular dementia (the same type of dementia my dad had) weren’t Tom’s fault (even with risk reduction, no one is guaranteed to not develop a type of dementia). These changes were even more baffling for Tom than those around him – unless you are a person living with dementia, you cannot possibly understand exactly what it feels like to be a person who is.
When things are happening to us that we don’t understand, the natural human tendency we have from birth is to gravitate towards someone who is familiar, who we trust, find comfort with and love. We want to know that everything is ok. And if we have an unmet need that we cannot articulate, the natural reaction is to search for someone who might be able to interpret this, which is most likely the person we are closest to in our life, usually our spouse if our parents are no longer around.
In parenting, this is a given. As mums and dads we accept and expect that our young child will seek us out when they need us, particularly if they don’t have the language to articulate their needs or the ability to meet them independently. Indeed, clinginess in a young child is otherwise known as the child seeing you as a ‘secure base’, with separation anxiety accepted as a natural part of child development.
I appreciate that in marriage this isn’t a given – you marry an independent adult and expect them to remain that way. But there is another way of looking at the reassurance a person with dementia needs from the person closest to them – You are their ‘secure base’. It is a mark of how strong your bond is that you are the person that your loved one needs to be closest to.
I’m not for one moment suggesting an adult with dementia is now a child – they remain an adult regardless of their cognitive impairment. But the narrative and attitudes we have towards happy and successful parenting, and the narrative and attitudes we have towards supporting a person who is living with dementia, are poles apart and children are definitely getting the better deal!
That is not to in any way undermine the huge efforts made by families around the world in caring for their loved ones who are living with dementia. I was appalled at the criticism of Pam and her family – yes, we can all spot mistakes from the comfort of our sofa, but when you are living the experience it is very different.
What I wish is that Tom, Pam and their family could have been shown receiving really proactive support to ensure that they could give Tom what he needed. The film showed that medicating Tom wasn’t the answer, and two periods as a mental health inpatient (including sectioning – my views on sectioning are here) didn’t help.
So what is general good advice for any family whose loved one wants to be with them 24/7:
Occupation and activity
One of the major features of the first part of Tom’s film is how little he had to occupy himself with. He was never shown to have any responsibilities or daily tasks, meaningful occupations, hobbies or activities that he enjoyed – not a healthy situation for a person who’d been a high-achieving, hardworking businessman.
That is not to say that everyone who lives with dementia will feel motivated to do things, my dad certainly went through a period when he refused to do anything except watch TV and look at books, and many people with dementia develop depression alongside their dementia which can also contribute to not wanting to do anything, but presenting those opportunities and making them a consistent part of every day life is vital.
Disabling people when they still have capabilities is a disaster. Not realising the person still has capabilities is a double disaster.
Do things together
So, you might think that ideal occupations and activities are ones that the person does alone, but think again. The person may not know how to begin, let alone successfully complete, a task. Doing things together not only means you being able to guide the person, but it enables the person to model what you are doing – it’s a subtle activity that is often wordless, and may happen without you even realising it as the person watches and copies you. A simple but vital way to boost the person’s independence without them having to acknowledge ways in which they are struggling.
Get your environment in order
If the person can’t remember their way to the bathroom or the kitchen, they are more likely to rely on following you to find their way. Some dementia friendly signage and simple design changes can all help to augment the person’s independence – see the world-leading dementia design work from Stirling University for tips and ideas.
Be the voice of confidence and reassurance
You may well be tired of telling your loved one “You can do it”, but dementia is a very big voice in a person’s life that, essentially, is trying to hold them back, making the person insecure, vulnerable and lacking in confidence. As the most trusted person in your loved one’s life, you have the ability to stop that juggernaut in its tracks (temporarily at least) by being a constant source of support, confidence and reassurance. As the Bette Midler song goes:
Did you ever know that you’re my hero,
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle,
For you are the wind beneath my wings
Accept the unsaid
Hard and exhausting though the need for constant reassurance and company may be, accepting three little words – that will most likely never be said out loud – can be transformative for your resilience.
“I need you” is what your loved one’s quest for reassurance and confidence is really saying. Take it from someone who was once that needed person, it may be hard at the time but it’s harder when you are no longer needed.
Until next time…