In the next few months I am going to be publishing a series I would like to refer to as:
The Fight for Survival. Each month is going to cover a distinct primitive instinct that remains within us as we age and explain some of the otherwise unexplainable.
As Activity Professionals you are continually faced with personality challenges, resident conflicts (both intrapersonal and interpersonal) as well as emotional reactions in and outside of the activity group setting. Sometimes the reactions we see, hear and experience as staff members can throw us for a loop. In the next few blogs you will see a theme that will hopefully explain What might be going on, Why it is going on and How you can respond to it while always focusing on making your partners look good.
The Fight for Survival Part 1: Emotion Before Reason
Many of you may be aware of my fascination with evolutionary psychology. Basically I talk about Cave people often. The reason behind this is simple: I truly believe that emotional traits and psychological mannerisms are generational. It is not necessarily “Survival of the Fittest” but rather “Survival of the one that can adapt to change better.” Plainly said, if you are a Cave person and you are able to adjust to changes within your physical and social environment, you are more likely to survive, therefore make babies, stay alive long enough to raise those babies and pass on those traits of “adaptation and accommodation.” The reality is, however, not all of these traits are pretty. Some are fierce and cut-throat and brutal, but they were and continue to be strong attributes that allowed for survival.
The first of these primitive instincts is called: Emotion before Reason. This basically means that humans run every sensory experience (whether it be a conversation, a physical interaction or an observed reaction) through the lens of Emotion first. This was very beneficial in primitive times because it allowed for quick judgment of a situation and the luxury of contemplating after the fact.
Think of it this way: A grizzly bear is growling and baring its teeth, charging in your direction. Your first reaction is “AHHH” and a feeling that this is NOT SAFE AT ALL. This emotional reaction allows you to escape the clutches of a wild animal. Your counterpart, however, uses reason first, mulling over which direction may be best to run towards and how to….oops… they were just eaten, so never mind.
Believe it or not we still do this today. As neurotypical adults we have developed and use the concepts of reason and logic very quickly after our first emotional impression of an experience. So quick that you probably don’t even believe that you use the lens of Emotion first. That’s fine. You don’t have to believe me to gain value from this concept.
As we age, we gain and apply coping mechanisms and defense mechanisms that help us understand those instinctual emotions that drive us and help us better react to situations we encounter. As people continue to age and/ or develop a form of dementia, those coping and defense mechanisms start to fade. That primitive instinct of using the Emotional Lens to
understand and filter information becomes the only lens. This can be good and bad at the same time.
The difficult aspect of this primitive instinct we see in persons living with dementia is the literal loss of a filter. Feelings are expressed openly, without regard. That can hurt some caregivers’ feelings. It can even leave a caregiver feeling ashamed or embarrassed. An example of this is when a resident of mine refers to my butt as “big” or my stomach as “fat”. I have even been the reason why a particular resident may deny my invitation to a meal, “I don’t need to look like you.” they respond.
But we, as caregivers, can tough it out, right. So your ego took a hit. So what. You can and you will recover.
The positive aspect of this primitive instinct is that persons living with dementia do not mince their words. There is no guessing about how they really feel. They just say it like it is (to them) and take the guesswork out of it; in fact they lay the emotion they are feeling right at your feet, ready for the taking.
So, take it. Run with it. It is a gift for you. There are few relationships in your life where you can truly rely on the unfiltered, unconditional and unadulterated truth. What you decide to do with this interaction is up to you. You can run to your office with your tail between your legs and vow to lose 10 pounds by next week and never eat ice cream again (cause that’s just so easy as an Activity Professional) or you can use it for a launching off point for a moment of connection.
Join in at that moment and say “yes”. Just try it, it can actually be fun. It may require you to embrace some self depreciation on your part, but it is sure to provide some laughter and joy as well. Consider this possible response to the emotional expression of my current weight issues directly pointed out by a resident
Me: “Yep, I certainly eat a lot don’t I. (insert self deprecating chuckle here) I just love chocolate, it is my go-to stress food. What did you like to indulge in?”…(now you are taking the time to create a moment of connection)
Resident: “I love cherry pie”
Me: “Oh really, pie? Yeah that is pretty awesome too. I think the dinner we prepared is very healthy, and maybe you will have some room for pie afterwards.” (Validation and possibly meaningful redirection towards the dining room.)
So success. You survived. And so did they. And you both did it together. So the Fight for Survival on the part of the resident became a Journey of Connection for both of you.