Individuals are always individuals

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I leaned against the wall, waiting for the elevator to get to my floor. The cheerful cook who had been working in the kitchen wheeled his dirty plate cart up alongside me. 

He was a portly guy, nice, but kind of spacey. I had only had a couple quick conversations with him. He seemed to really enjoy his job at the dementia care community.

“Martha was really talkative today,” I offered. “She’s so quick-witted and sarcastic. I love it,” I smiled at him.

“Yeah, she’s great!” he agreed. 

We go on the elevator and the doors closed behind us. The cook continued the conversation, “She can be really funny sometimes.”

“You know what,” he added, nonchalantly. “It’s so funny, you know? It’s like, they all have different personalities! Some of them are funny and some of them are kind of mean.”

This comment stopped me dead in my tracks. “Do you mean…like how they are all individual people with individual personalities and life experiences?” I clipped back, although not nearly as snarky as I would have liked my response to be.

The cook didn’t catch my snark and agreed. “Yeah! It’s so funny!” he said, and wheeled his cart off the elevator as the doors opened. “See you later!”

I got in my car and turned on the engine. I felt suddenly angry. What did he mean, “they all have their own personalities?” Of course they have their own personalities! They are PEOPLE!

I wanted to get back out of the car, go inside, and find this man. I wanted to confront him about his comment. Sadly, though, I knew that this would be in vain. He didn’t mean anything by it—but, in a way, that was the worst part. He hadn’t stopped to think about it: the “old people” on this dementia floor were so much more than just old people with cognitive problems. 

It’s a comment misconception, I think, that people with dementia just become shells of their former selves. Does that happen sometimes? Sure. But that person is always IN there. They are still individual people. 

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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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