“She gets combative sometimes.”

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I followed one of the floor nurses around as she introduced me to different residents. I have a technique to learn residents’ names, too: I stand in their dining room and point around the room until I remember everyone’s name and a little fact about them.

As we walked the dining room, the nurse pointed to residents. 

“This is Marie, she loves to color. She doesn’t like when people take her coloring stuff away,” she said.

“And this is Betty,” she nodded, motioning to a woman a couple feet from us. “Betty gets pretty combative sometimes.”

Betty’s face crinkled and she looked as the nurse, annoyed. Betty did not normally speak, but that did not mean that she did not know she was being spoken about.

I took the nurse’s arm and pulled her aside. “Betty can hear us,” I said. “Don’t say that stuff in front of her!”

“Oh, sorry,” the nurse said, and she really did seem taken aback and sorry. 

She hadn’t realized that this woman, although she was clearly confused, would actually understand what was said about her.

Many times, you’ll see this happen. Family members are often guilty of doing this, even though they do not mean to be offensive. 

A lot of people don’t realize that those with dementia still have the ability to understand social cues and conversations, even if they cannot respond.

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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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