By Tom Brenner, MA and Karen Brenner, MA
The couple, a man and woman, stood just outside the door of the Scandinavian Home, arguing. The autumn leaves from the towering elms on the grounds of the nursing home swirled around their feet as the cold wind snatched their voices away.
“I told you, Tom, I don’t want to go back today. I am afraid of some of those people. You know how much I hate scenes and last Saturday Bridget yelled at us and told us that nobody wanted us there. I just froze when she took off her slipper and started hitting that other woman on the head with it. You knew what to do, how to calm her down. Anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m just a Montessori teacher. You’re the gerontologist, you’re the specialist on aging, you’re the one who spent the last six years researching dementia. I’m not going in there again!”
He took her hand. “I know this is kind of scary sometimes, but what about the other thing that happened last Saturday? You know, when you had everyone singing together, even Don, who never says a word. He was singing and clapping and for a few minutes, he was connected again. This is why we’re here, this is what we do.”
“I know, Tom. I know that’s what we’re supposed to do, to help people reconnect, but I’m so much more comfortable in a room full of little kids. You’re the expert, not me. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Come on, Karen, we’re in this thing together. We’ll learn how to do this as we go. We’re a great team, aren’t we? I mean, we’ve been married forever, we’ve raised great kids, so we can do this together, too.”
“Right, a great team. If we’re so great at this, how come Bridget hates us? Anyway, we argue all the time, we’re arguing now. What makes you think we can work together?”
He picked up her hand again. “Because we are meant to do this, because we beat cancer together, because I can’t do this without you.” He pushed the door open and pulled her in with him and with his lopsided smile, whispered to her, “Anyway, Bridget doesn’t hate us, Bridget hates you!”
That was the way we began our work in dementia care, learning from our mistakes, finding out what worked and trying to understand why it worked. We have had the enormous good fortune of meeting people with dementia who were kind and patient and generous with us. We have also met lots of "Bridgets," people who want nothing to do with us, who are difficult, sometimes violent. We’ve learned from these hard cases that if we don’t give up, we can find a way to reach even them.
Through field-testing the Montessori Method for dementia care, we found what absolutely would not work and we discovered what worked really well. For us, success is measured in a smile, wide awake eyes, laughter, some sign, no matter how small, that we are helping people with dementia connect once again. We have learned to be careful observers, to see the tiny step forward, the small improvement, the flash of joy. We know that we cannot cure the condition or bring back a fully functioning person, but we can share with you our experiences of discovery and connection.
We’ve taken the dementia journey with many, many people and their caregivers, both professional carers and family members. Our work is designed to help caregivers regain their footing when they falter, to encourage them to celebrate each tiny victory, to remind them that caregiving is a calling of the highest order. When we care for someone we are giving the greatest gift of all: our time, our love, our best effort.
About the Authors
Tom Brenner is a gerontologist who specializes in creating dementia care programs that are strength-based and positive leaning. His wife, Karen, is a Montessori educator who co-founded a Montessori school for children who are deaf. The Brenners have worked together for the past twenty years researching and implementing the application of the Montessori Method for positive dementia care.
After years of working directly with people living with dementia and their caregivers, the Brenners published a book about their work, You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care. Tom and Karen travel throughout the United States presenting workshops, training programs and speaking engagements about their uplifting and positive approach to dementia care.
Contact Tom & Karen