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Carrie had a wicked sense of humor, even if she sometimes snapped at the care aides. She liked to approach people on her own terms and engage with people how she liked to engage with them. Sometimes I found that, if I approached Carrie first, she would make a face of disapproval. 

Carrie made a lot of faces, in fact. She had some aphasia, which meant that she had trouble communicating verbally. Often the words would come out in a kind of “word salad,” so she would say something like, “Yep, yep, let’s lunch eat, eat.” Her meaning was generally clear: she wanted to eat lunch, but the sentence structure didn’t always make sense.

This time in particular, Carrie had decided to taste some of the blue paint her fellow residents were painting pictures with. We had turned around for half a second, and when we turned back, she was licking her blue-painted fingers. Blue was all over her mouth and lips. The paint may have been non-toxic, but Carrie couldn’t go around all day covered in paint.

One of the nurses attempted to clean off Carrie’s face with a washcloth. “Hey!” Carrie yelled as the nurse lifted the cloth to her face. “No!” Carrie pushed back at the nurse as she tried to clean off her hands. 

The nurse wasn’t getting anywhere with this approach, so I tried what I knew about Carrie and went for the hand-over-hand technique. This technique means you let the person with dementia hold the washcloth while you guide her hand.

Carrie still wasn’t very interested in this. Instead of pushing me away, however, Carrie turned her hands around and began washing my fingers. “Yes, there we go,” she said, gently cleaning off my hands with the washcloth. 

I smiled as I realized I had an “in” here with helping Carrie get cleaned up. She continued to clean my hands gently. “That feels nice!” I smiled at her. “Now let me do the same thing for you,” I offered, taking the cloth from her slowly as I began to clean her hands. 

She nodded with approval as the paint slowly came off.

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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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