Trial and Error and Phones


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“Miss, come here, please,” Bill said, flagging me down. “Come look at my phone. It doesn’t work, and I think someone is trying to play jokes on me,” he said, leading me to his room and pointing at the phone.

Bill was notorious for having trouble with his phone. It had gotten so bad, in fact, that the front desk had called me earlier that day. “Bill has called us 17 times in the last half hour,” the receptionist said. “You’ve gotta do something.”

Bill did not understand how to dial out using his phone. He also could not understand why no one was answering at his old home telephone number. In an attempt to solve these problems, Bill just kept pressing “zero” to connect to an operator. That operator, unfortunately, was the front desk—and the front desk had a lot of other things to do. 

He called them and asked them to phone the police, call his home, call his wife, or even just to call him a cab. The front desk, of course, couldn’t do any of these things. 

“Anytime Bill sees the phone, he realizes that it doesn’t work for him,” I explained. “He gets frustrated with it, then becomes more agitated, and then won’t even come down for dinner. Let me take the phone out of his room and see what happens,” I said.

His family finally agreed, and I took the phone out of Bill’s room, stating that “it needed to be fixed.” I monitored Bill’s behavior closely over the next few days, and even the next week. Each day, he seemed to get better and less agitated. He even started coming down to dinner without a fight.

He still asked us to make calls for him, but he did that even when the phone was in his room. It seemed like, because the phone was not there, it was out of sight and out of mind. Thanks to a simple fix, Bill’s mood was improved and his agitated had decreased.

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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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