Is Dementia World a Happy Place?

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“I am leaving for the day, because my young son is at home with a babysitter,” Agnes told me calmly. “But I just wanted to tell you that I had the best time today, this was just wonderful,” she smiled, motioning to the little kids running in the courtyard.

We had just had an Easter egg hunt, and everything had gone smoothly. Families and staff members had brought their little kids into the courtyard to hunt for the colorful eggs we had hidden with the help of some residents.

Agnes lived at our dementia care community, but she did not know that. Seeing the kids running in our courtyard reminded her of when she had a young son, and her brain created a happy story where she had to head home to greet him.

“I have to make sure I get home and pay the babysitter,” she added.

Agnes’ story was as clear and rational as anyone’s, besides the obvious fact that she could not actually leave. She did not have anywhere to go, and had she left, Agnes would have found that her son was a grown adult, and her home was no longer where she thought it was.

There is no doubt that dementia is a complicated, sad group of diseases. I like to think, though, that dementia creates a happy internal world for many of my residents. This world is populated by beloved people and things, because these are the memories that have stayed around. These memories aren’t merely memories for people with dementia—they are real, and present.

No, dementia does not always create a happy world. When it does, though, that world can be just as rich and colorful as any story that you’ve ever read.

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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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