“Why can’t I…find…the words?”

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I was thrilled: we’d made it through an entire class without Ava getting upset. And, to top it all off, she was doing so well! We’d been playing a word-finding game, which I knew that she might struggle with. Still, she’d done so well! Ava spent the majority of the class laughing and smiling. 

Ava knew that she Alzheimer disease, and she often expressed her pain over this diagnosis. She often began to cry when she had trouble finding words.

As we got up to leave the class, Ava touched my arm. “Can I talk to you…out…?” she asked, pointing to the hallway. “Sure,” I smiled, my hopes still high. She’s done so well! I thought.

The second we got to the hallway, however, I knew I’d been wrong: she was upset. “Why can’t I…” she started, slowly. Then, suddenly, tears sprang to her eyes. “…find…the…” she could barely speak now, she was so devastated by her word-loss. “Find…the…”

Taken slightly aback, I touched her arm. I tried not to show her that I was alarmed by her tears, or worried at all. “…Words can be hard to find,” I offered calmly. I said this sentence the way that I did so that I’d be able to do things: one, fill in her sentence, and two, make the conversation flow together as though it had never stopped. As though she’d never lost the word, “words.”

We talked briefly about her diagnosis. I assured her that this was normal, but that she was doing really well. I told her how impressed I’d been with her abilities playing word games. 

I made a joke about losing my phone, saying that I’d lost it just the other day, while I was still on it. I’d been talking on the phone and looking for it at the same time, which was ridiculous, because it was in my hand and resting on my cheek. 

Ava laughed through her tears. “We all do that, don’t we?” she smiled, dabbing at her eyes with her fingers. 

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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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