Our infamous Mr. Q, whom I’ve called Dementia Man several times in referring to him, is always full of surprises. Usually the surprises are not of the good kind. He was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease about six months ago. He has been living in our RCFE (Residential Care Facility for the Elderly) for the past five months. Our RCFE is our home; we live there, as opposed to many RCFE’s where caretakers only rotate shifts working there.
Before he came to stay with us I had high hopes for him. He used to be a very close relative of mine who lived with us, but over the years I have seen little of him because he stayed in the Midwest and our family moved to California.
When he arrived I saw his condition was much worse than I had imagined. I still tried to connect to him as best I could. His memory was very good. His speech, however, was very marginal. He could talk a little, but it had to be forced out of him. With a lot of practice I finally got him to say full sentences to some questions I asked or from other responses from him.
Fast forward five months when a few days ago I was sitting on a couch across from him. I picked up one of my magazines and started glancing through it. On one of the pages there was a full page ad with a man throwing a paper airplane. I told Mr. Q what the man was doing, showed him the picture and also pointed to the paper airplane. I explained several times what the man was doing — throwing a paper airplane.
I asked Mr. Q did he know how to make a paper airplane. He was silent, totally silent, as usual. It is extremely rare when he even utters a single word. Right then I got the brilliant idea to make a paper airplane and have our dementia man fly it a few times. I tore out a heavy advertising sheet from the magazine and made a paper airplane. I dubbed his upcoming flight “Discovery Flight LE001.”
Since Mr. Q’s Alzheimer’s had progressed very rapidly the past three or four months I was not sure what to expect. Unfortunately his Alzheimer’s condition was advancing much faster than I or anyone else had expected. Most of the time he would totally ignore whatever we said or asked of him so it was hard to tell if he was just stubborn and refused to do something he didn’t want to do, or if he had forgotten how to do it, or maybe didn’t even understand what we were asking.
I held up the paper airplane about six or seven feet from him and showed him the plane. I explained I wanted him to fly it back to me. I flew the plane toward him slowly. I had given it some up flaps so it would go real slow and it did. It landed in his lap. He picked it up, but didn’t deem to know what to do with it. I explained again I wanted him to fly it back to me. I put it in his hand in the right position so he could easily glide it back to me. I then moved his arm a few times the same way he would have to move it to fly the plane. I stepped back a few feet and motioned toward me with my hands while saying to fly it back to me.
He just looked at me with staring eyes and looked at the paper airplane. Then he held it up as if to throw. However, he did not throw it. I asked again several times to throw or fly it to me, but got absolutely no response from him. He still was holding it as if to fly it, but would not.
Well I took the plane from him and flew it back to him several times hoping he would get the idea what to do, all the while explaining what I wanted him to do. I would put the plane in his hand and practice the act of sailing the plane back to me, but he would never let go of the paper airplane. I showed him the picture again and pointed to the man and the paper airplane hoping he would get the idea.
Finally after about twenty minutes of “training” he finally managed to throw the airplane toward me. I had moved up to about three feet from him, edging him on to fly the plane to me. The paper airplane barely flew the three feet as he barely threw it. It nose-dived and fell into my outstretched hands.
That was a bare victory, if you could call it that. I spent about an hour all total and he managed to fly, or rather throw the plane to me three times, although on his third “flight” I had moved up to within six inches of him, so in effect the plane dropped into my hand that time. The second flight was about one foot.
I was shocked that Mr. Q had seemingly forgotten what a paper airplane was for. It was to sail, just for having fun. He looked at the paper airplane as if he never saw one before. I kept showing him the picture in the magazine of the man flying the paper airplane, but it did little good. In fact, of the three flights, only the first one, the maiden flight, where it nose dived, would I really consider a true flight.
Over the past three or four days I tried the same thing again several more times. I even had the caretaker fly it to him and motion to fly it back, but absolutely no response came from him. He would just pick up the plane and look at it. Once in a while he would hold it up in the position to fly it, but never did after that first day.
Maybe he forgot how, although I kept explaining, slowly, what he should do when he got the airplane. He would watch me fly the paper airplane to him from across the room, get it and do it again many times. But it apparently never fully clicked that he could do it too.
I guess his Alzheimer’s condition has got the better of him. Although he seemed fully aware each of the several times I tried to get him to fly the paper airplane, he just did not seem to comprehend what to do with the airplane except the three feeble times he really did manage to fly it the first day.
With someone having dementia or Alzheimer’s it is unpredictable what kind of response you might get for anything, especially something out of the unusual. Often it’s as you expect, but sometimes it is totally different. I would never expect Mr. Q to forget how to fly a paper airplane. It did not appear as if he really understood what to do but just did not want to do it, but it is impossible to tell what’s going on in his mind.
As far as I know all little boys have, at one time or another, made and flown a paper airplane. It does not seem like a grown man who is shown exactly what to do many times would not understand. Flying a paper airplane is not very difficult to do or comprehend. I guess with Alzheimer’s these seemingly “easy to do” things are not so easy after all for some with the disease.
Of course not everyone with Alzheimer’s disease will respond the same way. Some will seem normal in almost all respects while at the opposite end you never know what to expect. Before writing this I tried one more time to see what Mr. Q’s response would be with a paper airplane flown to him.
The results were now predictable (at least for the time being), and as I thought, there was only the response of picking up the plane. He now did not even hold it up as if to throw it. That is the same response he had after several days of trying to get him to fly the plane.
If you have had any such experiences with simple things that a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia has surprised you with please enter your comment on my blog. There I describe my experiences with Mr. Q, one of our Alzheimer’s residents. I’d like to hear from you and your experiences.