Finding Calm in Repetitive Questions

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Like many people with dementia, Lucille had a “phrase” that she used often. Well, it wasn’t so much a “phrase” as it was a line of questioning that she asked every 10-20 minutes. 

“HEY!” she’d call, whenever she saw me. “What time of day is it?” or “HEY! What day of the week is it?” 

Fortunately for Lucille (and, perhaps, unfortunately for me) Lucille’s favorite couch was located right outside of my office—so, she saw me a lot.

There were days where I was the Queen of All That is Patient and I’d answer each time she asked with a sense of ethereal calm. “It’s 2:00, Lucille,” I’d smile, genuinely. And then, of course, there were other days when her line of questioning drove me absolutely nuts. “HEY!” she’d call out, and before she could finish her question, I’d say, “It’s Tuesday at 2:00.” 

Lucille, no matter what my answer was or how exactly I’d answer, was always pleased with the information. In a way, Lucille reminded me of an old cat. She had this perfectly-wrinkled face that would give way to a big smile when she got her answer. “Thank you very much,” she’d say genuinely, closing her eyes and letting a big smile cross her face.

I liked Lucille, which made it easier to answer her repetitive questions. There were definitely days, though, where I would take a deep breath before answering. Taking a moment to myself and taking a deep breath gave me just enough calm that I could answer her without an attitude. That trick worked for me a lot. I tried to remember that, even though she’d literally just asked me 10 minutes ago, she did not remember that she’d asked. It was a new question and answer for her.

One day, we were all on a bus ride together. “HEY!” she called up from a few seats back. I was in the middle of checking the time and ready to say, “It’s—” when she interrupted me. “What season of the year is it?” she finished.

“What?” I was completely caught off-guard: I hadn’t expected this new question! “Um,” I paused, “Uh, it’s fall,” I replied.

“Thank you very much,” Lucille said, closing her eyes and leaning back into her seat, a smile crossing her pleasant face.

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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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