Lesson 1 – Losing Patience (or Meanness Happens)

The husband was always a shrewd and strategic card player. They made a terrific team. Now, deep into the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s, he sat holding his cards with a loose grip while idly staring around the room. His wife, who rarely felt they were on the same team now, stood watching over his shoulder. She quietly reminded him it was his turn. He clutched his cards more tightly, zoning in with a furrowed brow and narrowed eye. When he threw a card onto the table, his wife stiffened. She flipped her hand palm up, quickly raised her arm skyward in protest, and said with a scoff, “why would you play that card?!” The other players glanced around awkwardly, averting their eyes to avoid seeing their friend’s embarrassment. To them, her reaction seemed disproportionate to the error. And to borrow my glasses as a gerontologist and dementia educator, I saw what looked like the wife’s unnecessary meanness as an indicator that she missed the version of her husband that was good at cards. She was probably fed up with much more than his slipping ability to play a friendly game of cards.

We’re kind of saying the quiet part out loud in this class. But it’s real. People routinely report in workshops and conversations that they feel guilty if they believe they’ve been too impatient or mean to their partner with memory loss, cognitive problems, Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. We also hear from adult children wishing their parents would dial down the zingers. It’s because they care so much that they feel so guilty. Meanness can happen in the context of caring relationships.

  • Do you wish you had more patience for someone with dementia?
  • Do you feel guilty about saying mean things or being short-tempered too often?
  • Has a family member or friend has told you you’re being mean to a person with dementia?