By Joshua Hunter
When I was in college, I worked as a hands-on caregiver for a home care company. One of my clients—I’ll call him Sam—had vascular dementia. I helped him three days a week for 12 hours a day.
Sam had his ups and downs. He could go from lucid to out of it in a matter of seconds, and he was easily agitated. Vascular dementia is a bit more drastic and sporadic compared to something like Alzheimer's, where you might have a bad day and a good day. With vascular dementia, you can have a bad hour and a good hour. So, my 12-hour shifts with Sam had lots of ups and downs.
One of Sam’s favorite calm-down activities was to ride around in the car. I spent many hours driving him around. It was during one of these drives that something unexpected happened. “I'm going to take you to my old house,” Sam said.
When you work as a caregiver for people living with dementia, you are trained to interact with them in a way that keeps them calm. Whatever they say, you go along with it.
“Okay, show me where to go,” I said, humoring him.
The directions Sam gave took us through a wooded area. Then, he told me to turn into a narrow driveway. We came to a large gate, and I stopped the car.
“What’s next,” I asked, looking at Sam. I was ready to go along with him, while silently bracing for an outburst.
There was no outburst. Instead, Sam gave me the code to the gate.
I opened the car window and pretended to enter the code. When the gate didn’t open, I looked at Sam.
"No, you actually have to press the buttons,” he said, looking at me like I was insane.
I entered the code. The gates opened. “Pull in,” he said.
The driveway wound through a beautiful hilly area. As I looked around and saw what appeared to be horses. Only they weren’t horses. They were zebras. One of them was pregnant.
The lane ended in front of the biggest home I had ever seen. “My ex-wife and I lived here,” Sam said, as I stopped the car. “She still lives here. Let’s go in.”
We walked to the door. Sam’s ex-wife answered the door, and graciously invited us in.
We talked for a while, and then Sam’s ex-wife gave us some raisin bread to feed the zebras.
You just never know where work as a caregiver will take you. There I was, feeding raisin bread to a hugely pregnant zebra in the middle of a twelve-hour shift with my client. You won’t find that in any job description.
I discovered a lot about Sam and his life that day, but the most important takeaway had nothing to do with the palatial estate I had just visited. This experience taught me never to underestimate a person with dementia. For those moments in the car, in his former residence, and in the pasture, Sam was his old self. I got a glimpse of the man he had been, and still was. It was an important lesson, and I’ve never forgotten it.