Sometimes they just need a hug
Portland, Maine— It was a beautiful spring day in Pasadena, California. The wisteria and lilacs were blooming, the air was crisp and the summertime LA smog in the area had yet to materialize.
I was doing a contract job helping an assisted living community in Pasadena obtain state licensure.
Glenn, the community’s manager, and I had tickets to one of the last concerts at the famous Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena before they closed. Roger Williams, Mr. Piano, was to perform and we had front row seats.
After savoring the delicious strawberry rhubarb cobbler at the end of our pre-concert dinner at The Parkway Grille, we headed over to The Auditorium, marveling at the beautiful grounds as we entered the world-famous acoustical concert hall at sunset.
The concert piano was so close to the front of the stage that we could almost touch it. The program included phenomenal performances of Autumn Leaves, Almost Paradise, The Sound of Music and for an encore, the sold-out audience was brought to its feet with the incredible performance of The Impossible Dream.
Once we got back to the community, I headed to my lodge apartment. Mr. Brewer, one of the residents who had dementia, was pacing the halls in an agitated manner. The staff said they had been unable to convince him it was time to retire to his room. He was being stubborn.
Figuring I could use logic to reason with him, I put my hand on his shoulder. While giving him the reasons why he should retreat into his room, I tried to move him gently toward his room. He brushed my arm aside and went into his room quickly, only to return swiftly, coming at me with a coat hanger.
The staff called Mr. Brewer's son, who came over immediately and gave his father a hug, which calmed Mr. Brewer down.
I'll never forget what the son said to me: "My dad doesn't understand that he is losing his ability to reason and that his memory is failing. He is terrified inside and doesn't know how to react to what is happening to him. When I give him a hug, it calms him down and despite not understanding what is going on, a hug gives him an assurance that everything is OK."
He just needed a hug.
Many years later, I am now more observant to the growing number of families struggling with this debilitating disease.
I am experiencing firsthand the devastating impact of dementia on the family as the disease systematically wipes out a person's memory and ability to think logically.
It manifests itself in very small ways at first. I remember the first time I noticed it. My wife and I were flying from Portland, ME to Chicago and she went to use the restroom. When she came out, she couldn't remember where we were seated and I had to stand up and wave so she could see me.
I now have my eyes open to noticing the large numbers of other families out there who are helping a loved one work their way through this frightening situation where their wonderful and intelligent spouse, parent or friend can't remember basic things such as restroom designation.
During a recent shopping trip to Macy's, I watched a woman walk her husband (who was physically fit) to the men's room and help open the door for him. In the past I would have thought there must be something wrong with the woman, but now I can see that the husband wouldn't have known which room to walk into, and she was discreetly helping him get to the right place without embarrassing himself.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to The Maine Diner for lunch. We were seated next to a couple in their 60s who had just been seated. I noticed that although the woman was looking at her menu, her partner was talking with her about the menu options and had to order for her. He did so in such a way that he made it appear as if she had chosen her own dish from the menu.
The couple next to us finished their meal and left before we did. Our server, who noticed that I had observed the dementia made the comment: "We are seeing this more and more now."
While preparing to leave after finishing our meal, I told my wife that I thought it would be better to turn left and travel back to Portland via the turnpike instead of turning right on Route One, which would be the scenic route, but take more time. This way we could pick up our dry cleaning from the cleaners and still make it home in time for my Zoom meeting. My wife replied that she wanted to travel back on Route One instead of the Maine Turnpike.
As I ticked off all the reasons why, logically, it made sense to travel back to Portland on the interstate, I noticed tears forming in her eyes as she began to see that I was arguing and ignoring her feelings. I had been insensitive, and she started to cry.
At that moment, I thought of Mr. Brewer and the lesson I had learned from his son. I leaned over, said "I love you," and just gave her a hug.
Then I turned right and we enjoyed a most wonderful drive through Ogunquit and Kennebunkport on our way back to Portland.
Sometimes, they just need a hug.
Theodore Lewis is the former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a health care consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at email@example.com.