Feb 4, 2016

Dementia, Emotional Empathy and Tea

When a person says, “You saved my life!”

It’s quite an experience to go into a tea shop for a cup of tea and find out that you changed someone’s life for the better.

We were sitting in a beautiful little tea shop with cups of Earl Grey tea and some manuscript pages from our book filling up the small table.

We were discussing various aspects of the book and our work (reaching and connecting to people living with dementia). The tea shop was not busy early in the afternoon and we noticed that the tea shop owner kept glancing our way.

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By Tom and Karen Brenner
+Alzheimer's Reading Room

Finally, the owner of the shop walked over to us and apologized for listening in to our conversation.

The owner explained that she was intrigued by our discussion because her mother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the whole family was feeling lost and afraid.

Her mother was living in her own home still with various family members spending nights to make sure their mom was safe. It wasn’t a very good arrangement, but it was the solution they had come up with until they could figure out what their next step would be.

As the tea shop wasn’t busy, we invited the owner to sit down and join us. She began to tell us about her mother.

She said that her mom was still able to perform many of the activities of daily living; she could dress herself, cook a simple meal and do her own laundry. But, socially and emotionally, the family was noticing big changes in their mother.

She was driving everyone crazy, the tea shop owner said, by asking the same questions over and over again, or telling the same stories from her childhood over and over. The family’s nerves were being shredded and the siblings were beginning to argue among themselves about what to do with their mother.

We encouraged the distraught tea shop owner to sit down with her siblings and try to prioritize the difficulties they were facing with their mother and how they could, collectively, come up with a plan to solve these problems.

We advised her to help her family delegate the responsibilities and problems so that everyone felt they were part of the solution and no one felt that the entire burden rested on one person. We knew, of course, that these sort of discussions are much simpler in theory than in practice, but we hoped that it might lead to a more positive outcome for the family and their mother.

We also asked the tea shop owner to try and listen to the meaning behind her mother’s words.

Why was she telling the same story over and over? Was there some memory or emotion that she wanted/needed to share with her family? When her mother asked the same questions over and over, was there some anxiety, some fear that generated this repetition?

We gathered up our papers and paid for our pot of tea and wished the tea shop owner the very best of luck with her mother and her family. The owner thanked us for our time and our help with tears in her eyes.

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A few months later, we were back in the tea shop when the owner of the shop made a bee line for us. She pointed at us and dramatically declared,

“You saved my life!”

She then went on to explain that after our brief discussion about her mother, she had taken our advice to heart and began to try really hard to listen for the meaning behind her mother’s words.

She told us this story to help explain her evolution as a dementia care giver. On the Saturday before Easter Sunday, the shop owner told her mother that she would pick her up for 7:30 mass instead of their usual 9:30 mass as she wanted to avoid the Easter crowds. Her mother began to cry and say that she didn’t want to go. This was a shock to the daughter, as her mother never missed mass. Her mother went on to tell her that she was afraid to go to the 7:30 mass because that was where the bad policemen would be and they would be after her.

The tea shop owner was just about to argue with her mother that this didn’t make any sense, when she remembered our advice to her, “Look for the meaning behind the words.”

Suddenly, she realized that her mother was telling her that going to the earlier mass was overwhelming to her mom. Perhaps her mother couldn’t get herself together that early in the morning, or maybe she was worried about going to a different mass and seeing different people.

Instead of getting into an argument with her mother and both of them winding up angry and frustrated, the daughter acknowledged her mother’s fears and anxiety as being very real. She assured her mother that they didn’t have to go to a different mass on Easter. They could go to the usual 9:30 mass. Her mother stopped crying and looked at her daughter with a huge smile of relief.

Pretty simple stuff, pretty powerful stuff, too.

It’s quite an experience to go into a tea shop for a cup of tea and find out that you changed someone’s life for the better. The Earl Grey Tea was very good, the shared experience was a real gift to us!

Tom and Karen Brenner are Montessori Gerontologists, researchers, consultants, trainers and writers dedicated to working for culture change in the field of aging. They are the authors of  You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care.

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Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy or primitive empathy, is the subjective state resulting from emotional contagion. It is our automatic drive to respond appropriately to another’s emotions. This kind of empathy happens automatically, and often unconsciously. It has also been referred to as the vicarious sharing of emotions.