The Purple Jacket – A Story About Dementia

Posted on November 5, 2016

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I have known Luba* for the last few months. She is 77 and comes to the dementia day program daily; I see her once a week. When she started, she would tell me in English, “My English, not good.” It was pretty good. She could make simple conversation. She has the sweetest personality; she greets most young women with kisses on either cheek. Imagine my surprise when I found out she’d had an unsuccessful trial at the program many months ago owing to her anxiety. Her family, the doctor and the day program staff worked together and used a combination of medication and communication strategies to make her comfortable this time around.

Over the last few weeks, I find that she has lost almost all her English and speaks mainly in Greek. The staff nor I speak Greek, but we match her expression and mood and she seems to feel comforted, because the conversation always ends, you guessed it, with kisses on both cheeks and a smile. She has been getting very anxious after lunch, an hour before it’s time to go home. This is when we sit together. She talks and I listen. Sometimes she hums in Greek. Mostly, she points to the window and says, “Bus?” And I say, “30 more minutes. 15 more minutes. I will be right here with you.” She likes to hold my hand. She thanks me a lot. Sometimes, we walk around the premises.

zipYesterday, as she waited for the program bus to take her home, she put on her purple jacket. I watched her try to do the zipper. There were two pull tabs that needed to be fitted into the box pins. One needed to remain at the bottom and the other had to be pulled up. Full disclosure: I suck at zippers. And this one was pretty annoying! I watched her try to put both the pull tabs into the box pins, but when she tried to pull up the top one, the bottom one also came up, thereby letting the zipper remain unfastened. After several tries, I offered her my help. Needless to say, I couldn’t manage to do it! So I said, “Why don’t we just do up the buttons. It will keep you warm.” She refused. She wanted to fasten the zipper. She gave me her determined smile.

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All ready to go home! The Zipper is fastened 🙂

Next thing I know, she took off her coat. It was inside out. She straightened it out. She lay the jacket on her lap. She carefully put both the pull tabs into the box pin. She held down the bottom one securely with one hand and pulled the other half-way up. She stood up, and started to put on the coat as she’d do with a pullover. She just needed help to pull her head out. But it was done in seconds. She looked at me, triumphant! She gave me a high-five!

Two kisses and happy goodbyes later, she got onto the bus. It was a pleasant reminder about how, in dementia, some capacities may diminish and others remain intact for a longer time. In these little moments, I learn to slow down, and celebrate the successes that help people living with dementia maintain their self-worth and independence.

I have the same problem with my winter coat zippers. All the time. Guess I’m gonna be using Luba’s creative solution and think of her every time!

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