I’ll be the first to admit— I’m not a patient person. I never have been. My mom often says, “You’re so patient with older people. Why can’t you be this patient with everyone?” I like to say that I don’t “suffer fools,” and that has become even more true as I age. There’s really only one exception to this rule, and that is with older adults, especially those with dementia. Sometimes I even surprise myself with how patient I can be. Of course there are trying, exhausting, and patience-pushing moments when working with people with dementia, but somehow I pull through with a smile. Whenever I meet someone new and we talk about work, that person usually says something like, “Wow! You must be so patient to be doing that.” I wish I could easily convey how completely not-patient I am most of the time. How waiting in line at the bank nearly pushes me over the edge; how a friend or stranger making an ignorant comment makes me grit my teeth. For some reason, though, dementia caregiving is my gift. I don’t know how I got it. I was very close with my grandparents growing up, and I think that helped enhance my love of older adults, but even that doesn’t explain it. I truly believe that you have to “find your population,” and by that I mean, figure out which type of people (if any people) you can work with. I could never be a teacher. I applaud the women and men that stand in front of classrooms all day. That just isn’t for me. A person with dementia can’t always control their reactions and behaviors the way that most of us can, and maybe that’s why I have so much patience. Most people can choose to act or say a certain thing, but people with dementia no longer have that ability. They are living in their own reality, and that’s where we get to meet them.
Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.
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I wrote this poem years ago, but to date, it’s the most popular piece I’ve ever created.