The Same In Every Language.

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Astrid was an 85-year-old woman who only spoke German.* She was also the only resident in our community who spoke German.

Besides a few staff members, including myself, no one else spoke any German. It didn’t take a lot of work, however, to realize that she was very, very angry about being locked in a community. 

Astrid stood, fists clenched, pounding on the front door. 

“OPEN THE DOOR!” she screamed in her native language. Staff members crowded her, trying to calm her down. No mix of German or English was going to calm this woman. She only wanted out. 

The best thing to do was to let Astrid be. Anytime someone attempted to speak to her, she would just start yelling. We kept an eye on her, but gave her some space. 

Eventually, after she calmed down a little, I approached her.

“Do you want to help me in the kitchen?” I asked in German. I knew that Astrid loved to cook, and we were baking brownies. She eyed me suspiciously, but followed me to the kitchen.

She sat down with six other residents and immediately reached for the mixing bowl. A volunteer who was fluent in German came by to assist us in translating. Next thing you know, Astrid was enjoying herself. She was laughing, talking, and instructing me that the “mix was too dry.”

Astrid spent the rest of the day in a much happier state than she had before. She spent nearly 45 minutes reading to the volunteer from her beloved Bible and ate one of the brownies we had baked. She enjoyed playing a ball game with the rest of the residents, and even liked the singer who came in to perform for everyone. 

Dementia care is the same in every language. 

Side note: Astrid’s family told us that she used to speak English, but no longer knows how. I know that she sometimes understands me when I speak English, but she does not seem to realize that she understands. When people have dementia, often they switch back to speaking in their native tongue, even if they do not realize that’s what is happening.

*As always, details have been changed.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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