Lesson #11: Squirrel!

The art of distraction is an easy one that I was so relieved to learn about. As simple and absurd as it sounds, distraction is a powerful tool in helping people with dementia and Alzheimer’s (and their caregivers) cope with repetitive behaviour, either verbal or physical.

Here’s an example of a typical loop….
I’m sitting with my parents over lunch. My mother hasn’t been able to cook since the stove appliance stopped making sense to her, so someone is there every day for the mid-day meal and the local Meals on Wheels volunteers (angels!) deliver a hot supper right to the door on weekdays.

Usually, the kitchen television is tuned into a 24/7 news channel. As much as I hate listening to cable news (so depressing), this is my father’s habit and I’m reluctant to impose new rules on their diminishing freedoms, ever conscious of how it must feel to have people around all the time telling you what you can and cannot do….. besides, my father prides himself on being up-to-date on current affairs. He still reads the local paper every morning, even though on some days it takes him a while.

Up pops a news story, with the anchor man or woman usually employing a tone of alarm. Spectacular storm slams southwest! Brexit vote leaves immigrants in despair! Trump presidential win stuns nation! And so on…..

Invariably, my father will catch a bit of the news story and then turn to me, hoping for clarification and/or a lively discussion. Just as predictably, we will be about 15 minutes into this conversation when he forgets what we’re talking about. Or we will have just finished our exchange, and he will repeat his original question, as if we hadn’t just talked about it. Sort of like a scene out of the comedy Groundhog Day, if you saw the movie.

This might sound harmless enough, but there are times when he can get caught up in the mood of the news, which is not good. If he gets angry or upset, wants to climb onto his political podium and start ranting, it raises his blood pressure and upsets my mother. Obviously, I do what I can to keep him calm and rational, but sometimes it can get out of hand, which is when a distraction can be magical.

As it turns out, my father loves squirrels, and enjoys watching them scamper along the cable lines that sag gently over the backyard. We have even named some of them; his favourite is a little guy with a white stripe along his bushy tail, Sammy Squirrel.

And one day, after being asked for the umpteenth time to explain some ridiculous news event, I looked over his shoulder and saw Sammy up on the highwire.

“Squirrel!” I called out, pointing. Dad’s head swiveled around faster than a dog’s, and he exclaimed in delight at the familiar site. I broke down into a fit of giggles, having been reminded of the meme in the cute animated movie Up. Soon Dad was laughing with me, not even knowing why. It’s not just crying that’s contagious! We both enjoyed a good chortle and I was able to switch the conversation to something lighter. Saved by the squirrel.



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