A Magical Phonebook.

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Merna opened the door to my office. “I need to look up a phone number,” she said with some urgency. 

This was a new one. Many of my residents ask to call people, but none of them ever have a phone number to give me—or even a plan to locate one. Some residents offer a series of numbers for me to call that do not resemble an actual phone contact. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 1, 3, 5, 8, 8, 10, 1.” 

We also have a resident, Sarah, who gives us a house address to call, which is presumably what she used when speaking to an operator many years ago. “Just dial 1-0-9-0 Westlake Drive,” Sarah usually offers. 

In any case, I was hesitant about giving Merna a phonebook. What if she gets even more confused when she can’t find the number? I worried. What if she finds a number she wants to call and focuses on it? I thought. 

The only way to know, however, was to try. In an effort to prevent her from calling any unsuspecting families, I found The Yellow Pages.

I brought it to Merna. 

“Oh, wonderful, thank you,” she said, disappearing with it. 

A half an hour passed, and Merna returned, book in hand. “I didn’t find what I was looking for,” she shrugged as she handed back The Yellow Pages and walked away.

Merna did not ask about the phone number again. In a way, her problem was solved. Merna had not found what she was looking for, but someone had paid attention to her problem. I had given her a way to make her own decision. I had given her a chance to feel like she was in control of her own life.

And that was enough.

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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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