Learning to ‘play office’
As he was in the later stages of dementia he spent a large part of the day in his armchair and I would potter around him doing laundry or other household tasks and occasionally checking in on him with a smile. Sometimes he would chatter away seemingly to himself and, while I never ignored him, I didn’t engage.
After some weeks caring for Charlie I came to realise that I felt uncomfortable simply being with him, sitting with him – I was actually distracting myself with household tasks. I began to wonder what this might feel like for Charlie.
One day as I was sitting with him I decided to participate in ‘a conversation’ with him. He had been playing with a stack of photos and papers that a moment before he had covered with his sticky drink.
As I sat next to him kind of observing, he signaled with a hand gesture for me to approach him. As I did, I smiled warmly. He began talking and I sat down, lower than him.
I was genuinely interested in what he might be going to say. And I felt like he sensed that I was interested in what he was going to say.
At the level of his words he made no sense at all. He appeared comfortable and his tone was like he wanted to explain a situation to me. Every now and again he would refer to the ‘papers’ in front of him with a hand gesture. Every now and again he would say ‘right?’, as if to check that I understood what he had just been saying.
My background is in childcare. I decided to approach the situation as imaginary play. I indicated that I understood what he was explaining. It occurred to me that he would not have many opportunities lately where he was the one explaining something. I felt he enjoyed this. He shuffled the papers like they were documents and them handed them to me. I decided to be like a secretary and asked him ‘Do you want me to process these?’ He said ‘wonderful!’ I took the documents, ‘went through them’, and ducked out of the room quickly and returned.
When I came back he said, ‘How’d you go?’ I was a bit surprised as I had not experienced him being so aware. I responded, ‘We’ve got some really great stuff here’ and I laid the papers for him to look at. We were both really engaged. Charlie continued explaining things to me, and I continued being the responsive listener.
From this point on, some of my fondest times – which were also calm times – with Charlie were when I took time and ‘played office’ with him.