Meet Mr. W. I first met him two months ago at the dementia care facility Rufus and I visit on Friday mornings. On the day of that first meeting, although reticent, and uninterested in engaging with Rufus, Mr. W seemed to be a man with an above average level of awareness for residents in the home. He commented that Rufus was a good looking dog, he engaged with staff, and asserted his desire to return to his room, which he did under his own power.
The Mr. W I met this past week was a very different person. He was agitated; he could not remember where he was, or how he got there. Staff members were doing their best to comfort Mr. W, but he was inconsolable and kept requesting, in a polite but urgent manner, that someone call his kids, because he did not think they knew where he was. Staff reminded Mr. W that it was his kids who had decided that he should live there and they would be there to visit him soon. This strategy was ineffective as Mr. W would quickly forget the conversation and resume his confused and agitated state.
This whole scene unfolded in the community room where Rufus and I spend the majority of our time when we visit. Rufus was busy entertaining a cohort of old ladies, so I attempted to engage Mr. W. I approached and introduced myself, reminding him that we had met once before. He greeted me warmly, and immediately asked if I knew his kids or how to reach them. I told him I did not know how to reach them, but that they knew where he was and that he was safe.
Again, a moment of relief, but I could see in his eyes a distress that suggested while he understood what I was saying, and believed me, it just served to remind him that he could not remember, and that was equally distressing. It was obvious that we could have this same conversation all day, and a new strategy was necessary.
I asked Mr. W to tell me about his kids. I could see a shift immediately, his eyes opened wider, he relaxed a bit in his chair, and there was even a trace of a smile. He told me about his kids and five grandchildren. He told me about his career in banking. He told about his adventures as a pheasant and chukar hunter. He told me about a canine companion he once had named Baron.
There were moments during this conversation where Mr. W would become frightened again by the idea that his family did not know where he was and would be looking for him. When this occurred, I would remind him that he was safe, his kids would be here as soon as they could, and then ask him to tell me more about his kids, his job, or his favorite hunting memories.
Feeling like we had made some progress, I asked Mr. W if he wanted to spend some time with Rufus and he graciously accepted. I pushed Mr. W up to the table and watched has he actively engaged with Rufus, stroking his back and telling him what a good looking dog he was.
It was a tough drove home that day. I was both pleased to know that we can and do make a difference for people like Mr. W., and saddened by the fact that we live in a world where feelings of isolation, confusion, and fear are a day-to-day reality for some. Mr. W. felt lost, he did not understand what was happening to him, and he could not reconcile why his family was not there to care for him. On the drive home, I realized how much the emotions Mr. W. was experiencing that day are the same emotions that would be experienced by a loving dog who suddenly finds themselves in a shelter. They would feel lost, alone, and unable to understand why their family was not there to take care of them.
Whether these feelings belong to a senior dog who suddenly finds themselves in a shelter, to an elderly person who cannot remember how they got there, or to an at-risk young adult trying to make their way in this world, I believe we have a responsibility to address them. There are many in our world who experience these feelings every day; as soon as we become aware of how we are influenced by the energy around us and therefore recognize that the well-being of all directly impacts the well-being of us as individuals, we will begin to see the importance of addressing these moments of existential crisis, regardless of the age, species, or circumstances of the one who is experiencing them.