Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Re-imagining Alz: Dancing with Rose

Published May 31, 2007.
No doubt, living with dementia is a challenge. Whether caused by Alzheimer's Disease, vascular dementia or another cognition-altering malady, memory problems make it difficult to function in the world, difficult to relate to others.

I have frequently heard caregivers recommend Lauren Kessler's book Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's. I finally made the time to read her account of working in the memory care wing of a skilled nursing facility.

Trained as a university professor, Kessler decided to work a minimum-wage job as a certified nurse assistant (or resident assistant as she calls it). She chose to do this as a way to pay homage to her mother who spent her last few years living with dementia.

Kessler shares her experience learning how to care for the physical, emotional and social needs of the residents of Maplewood, most of whom have moderate memory problems.

On the one hand, Kessler presents the bare facts of helping residents eat, dress, transfer and toilet. On the other hand, she explores the possibility that she can communicate and connect with the people who are transformed by dementia.  She learns how to accept living with them in the moment.  Instead of mourning what they have lost, she celebrates what remains and finds the joy, the whimsy, the love available in the moment.

For example, she initially found one of the residents, Hayes, difficult to be with because he constantly asked her, "What's next?" Then she learned two things about him that helped her reframe his behavior in a positive light.

First, Kessler learned that he was a stoic and uncommunicative person prior to his diagnosis, and his adult daughter found his talkativeness a great blessing.  Second, she learned that he worked for years as an engineer, which probably encouraged him to see life in terms of mechanical tasks that must be performed efficiently. Kessler instead started to guide Hayes step-by-step through daily tasks, which decreased his level of anxiety.

For each resident, Kessler worked to understand their past lives, their primary stance towards the world, their major insecurities, and their value system so that she could help validate their way of being in the world. For example, a retired university administrator conceptualized the nursing home as an administration building or a retreat center. Kessler validated these views rather than distressing Marianne by challenging them.

I found Kessler's book a great example for how to accept people at face value and how to live more fully in the moment. Yes, these are valuable lessons for learning how to better relate to people with dementia. But on further reflection, acceptance and embracing the moment are powerful tools for relating with all people.


Meeting Dementia's Challenges with a Memoir
Movies Depicting Alzheimer's Disease
Cognitive Changes: The Usual Suspects


  1. How timely for me. My Mom has dementia primarily with short term memory problems at the moment and is currently in a rehab/skilled nursing facility for severe medical problems with one leg. Being there has made her dementia more of an issue and we are having to adjust how we talk with her.

  2. Excellent review, and with more and more demential and Alzheimer's surrounding us as we age, an important piece of work to consider.

  3. What a beautiful way to work with people who still matter...Lauren Kessler has taught all of us something critically important. Thank you for sharing this book!

  4. Thank you for sharing this book. As a caregiver to my mother I am always looking for better ways to communicate,with her. I can't wait to read it.

  5. My cousin has Alzheimer's and his wife is struggling to keep up as his prime caretaker. This would be a good book to share with her, thanks so much.