What do flowers, scissors and mirrors have in common?

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It’s this: everyone thinks that people living with dementia can’t have these items.

I’ve often been to care communities where someone will say to me, “Well, we took all our residents’ butter knives away because we heard that people with dementia can’t have them” or, “Oh, we heard that people with dementia get upset if they see their own reflections.”

I don’t know who is spreading these ridiculous rumors, but I think it stems from a big resistance to change. Someone, one time, thirty years ago, suggested that their residents would eat the flowers if they were left on the table, because they saw one resident, one time, eat a flower. From that day forth, no residents were allowed flowers on their dining room tables. How dumb is that?

While there are people with dementia (and, really, without dementia) who shouldn’t have access to sharp objects, we do not have the right to take scissors and knives from people with dementia who are perfectly fine to use them. The only thing we’ve accomplished, in doing this, is disabling them farther. Someone has been using a butter knife to put jelly on their toast for the last fifty years. Now you’ve taken their butter knife.

Only once have I actually heard of someone being upset by their mirror because they didn’t recognize themselves. ONCE, and it was recently. Usually, if people don’t recognize themselves, they assign an identity to “that person,” such as a neighbor or an older relative that they think they look like. I’ve never actually seen—in person—anyone be upset by a mirror.

The goal should always be to allow people living with dementia the most freedom and access possible until they show that they are not able to use certain items any longer. Just because Sally can’t use a knife safely doesn’t mean that Ben has to have his knife taken away, too.

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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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