Pattern-Seeking Behavior

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People often ask me if their loved ones with dementia can “learn new things.” My answer usually is something like, “kind of.”

I realize that this isn’t a very good answer, but it’s true. When I first got to the community where I work now, no one used the activity space. At least, not really. Residents didn’t just go in there by themselves. Sometimes, you’d find a resident sitting in there, alone, watching TV. Otherwise, no one entered or used to the space.

It was a shame, too, because the activity room was a nice space, it just needed some work. Since I’ve been here, we’ve worked tirelessly to turn the space into an active, fun, interesting place. I’ve added a piano, moved the furniture around, and added another table for activities. I’ve put art on the walls and decorated the space to make it more welcoming.

Over the next couple months, residents began using the space without the help of anyone else. They went to the room and began working on puzzles, playing the piano, or just sitting down, waiting for the next activity. 

When asked what they were waiting for, my residents cannot tell you. “I don’t know, something is happening here soon, right?” one resident once said to me.

Our brains are very pattern-seeking. My residents with dementia know that things happen in that room, especially at certain times of the day. They’ve learned that, if they go to the room, they’ll have something fun to do.

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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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