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Betta spoke only Italian, which was challenging, because no one else at the dementia care community spoke any Italian.

She had come over from Italy as a child, and had learned English quickly. But, as her dementia progressed, Betta had lost her grasp on the English language.

My Spanish isn’t great, but I know enough to have a conversation. Spanish and Italian have some similarities, but not nearly enough that I could always understand Betta.

Betta had no idea that no one understood her. I realized quickly that she loved the baby dolls, and enjoyed spending time in the nursery that I had set up for our residents.

Betta sat with me in the nursery, bouncing the baby doll on her knee. She smiled and sang to it in Italian.

Inspired, I reached for the empty baby bottle and handed it to Betta. She said something in Italian and took off the bottle’s cap. Betta placed the bottle in her mouth and seemed to be trying to test the temperature of the non-existent liquid inside.

“Hmmm,” she muttered, looking at the bottle. “Latte?” she asked me.

“Milk!” I cried ecstatically. “You said ‘milk’,” I whispered, mostly to myself. I was thrilled that I had understood her.

We may speak different languages, but we connected over this mutual understanding and her love for the baby doll.

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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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