Finally, A Smile


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Joanne didn’t smile much. In fact, I had not seen her really smile about anything at all. She spoke to others, but sparingly, even though it seemed like she wanted attention. Often, Joanne would call out for help to passing caregivers, but as they arrived at her side, she would not tell them what was wrong.

I had had a lot of success with baby dolls in the past, especially with residents who needed extra attention. One woman in particular had really taken to the baby dolls, and no longer cried out for assistance. Instead, she gave all of her energy and time to taking care of the baby dolls, which made her feel useful.

We tried this with Joanne. “Can you take this baby back?” she asked, after holding it for only a minute, clearly bored with the baby. 

After looking into her history, we realized that Joanne had never had children. Instead, she had devoted her life to caring for dogs. 

When our shipment of pets arrived from Memorable Pets, I was ready to try something new with this resident. 

She sat, eyes closed, looking melancholy, and being assisted with eating by a resident caregiver. Even though her eyes were closed, Joanne opened her mouth, accepting each bite of food.

“Joanne,” I said, touching her shoulder gently. She opened her eyes and saw me holding the sweet-looking stuffed dog.

“What do you think about this?” I asked her, holding out the dog.

Her eyes opened wider and a smile—unlike one I had ever seen—moved across her face. She stared at the dog, the smile growing wider, as she reached for it.

“I’ll take the best care of you,” she whispered. “You’re the sweetest dog.”

This is, in fact, an actual photo of Joanne and the dog. 

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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