Stay at Home

Almost a month ago, the British Prime Minister instructed us to stay at home in the UK. Boris Johnson's goal was to slow the spread of the new Coronavirus, COVID-19, and relieve the pressure on the National Health Service, otherwise known as the NHS. He closed all shops that sell non-essential goods; he closed physical places of worship, social ceremonies and social gatherings. Measures like this have not been in place for decades and it affects all of us.

I think you'll agree it's a tough change to our daily lives and continues to require us to think differently about how we live. In some cases, things are “just normal”, and in others, we're "just stuck". What has been amazing is watching the resilience in our communities to do what's necessary.

Meanwhile, as I read the newspapers and follow social media, I'm struck by all the different ways we're describing this period, like shelter in place, lockdown and quarantine. And, I'm struck by the subtle impact these different phrases have on our emotional health, especially as this period is extended. Some of you might be thinking these are just words, while others are triggered by specific phrases differently. The words we use are particularly relevant to think about when we're living with or supporting a dementia.

Why words matter to your brain

Think about it. Every time we have a thought, or someone shares one with us, our brain is reaching into our history, our past experiences, to inform that moment. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. It's happening right now! What happens for each of us in each moment is slightly different based on our own personal history. Here's an example: have you ever had food poisoning? Those of us who have will probably have strong, even visceral, responses to THAT food. For me, it was lettuce in an old salad. Now, my brain pulls that memory of being sick first, and I have to think past that memory to reach better memories when I didn't get sick. This memory is a bit of a stumbling block for me – I love salad!

What are you calling your self-isolation?

Our memory banks do the best they can to inform us, but they're not perfect and we need to actively think about whether the information provided by the past serves our present needs. So, let's take a look at the different phrases for these restrictions we're under:

  • Lockdown. It's linked to the confinement of prisoners to their cells when things are out of control or at risk of becoming out of control. So, it's a state of isolation or restricted access instituted as a security measure.
  • Shelter in place. This phrase, I hear a lot from my American friends and family. I grew up with this phrase linked to natural occurrences like earthquakes and tornadoes when you're safer in one spot than roaming around and in danger from falling debris or damage.
    This phrase is also linked to shooting or bombing incidents, especially in schools or large institutions, where staying in one place or hiding is a better strategy than seeking help.
  • Quarantine. Others around me are describing our situation as a time when restricting the movement of people or goods can prevent the spread of disease or pests. Astronauts experience quarantine before their space missions. This effort helps to prevent astronauts from travelling with a cold, flu or other that would reduce their productivity and ability to do their work, but reduce the risk of others catching it too.

Now is definitely a time when we're trying to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, COVID-19, but we're free to exercise outside, seek medical assistance, or assist others like vulnerable neighbours, family and friends. So, quarantine doesn't work for me.

Depending on where you live, your past experiences and your own response to these phrases, they'll have different and unique meanings. Some will likely be harmless, but others may be harmful. If you're supporting someone with dementia, it's important to think about the meaning of your words, particularly at this time. Are you using a phrase that is triggering anxiety or agitation for you or your loved one?

I knew a woman with Alzheimer's a few years ago who was finding the home improvements and construction happening in her home extremely unsettling. She would be fine every morning, but once the hammers, saws and other equipment began, she grew more and more agitated. Her husband would explain to her that it wasn't going to happen for much longer, but everyday he watched her dementia symptoms grow and her sense of calm disappear. She would tell him that she couldn't go away, which he didn't understand because he had promised her that they would remain together, which was why they were renovating the house.

He sought outside help, trying to decide if these symptoms he was seeing were permanent and a sign that he would need to move her to a care home after all. He and I talked about what was happening. We also talked about her childhood and her background. Something wasn't right. As he described what was happening for her, he mentioned that their weekends were fine. And, when her sister collected her in the morning before the construction started, she remained much calmer. Was it him? We talked to her sister and learned that their childhood memories were filled with wartime bombing and the threat of evacuation. When the husband learned this, he started thinking differently about their discussions and how the construction noises happening just outside the house were very much like the traumatic sounds that his wife would have heard as a child. He took steps to ensure that she wasn't in the house when the renovations were happening, and she became much calmer, even enjoyed seeing the progress made in their home.

We're not always aware of past experiences that help define our new experiences or the words we use to describe them. If you're noticing more agitation or anxiety at home or you're hearing more memories and reminiscing around times of hardship from your loved one, consider what language you're using and if you can help your loved one by changing the words you use.

Being Safe at Home

I don't use any of these phrases. I think they're incendiary and not healthy over this extended period. I prefer to use the phrase 'safe at home'. It's true, we are safe at home, and it reflects the interest in keeping our communities healthy. I even pronounce it with a little bit of an upbeat tune when I say it.

I'm keen to make sure that this experience doesn't trigger anything negative and as it extends into more prolonged periods, I don't want to have persistent or chronic feelings that aren't good for my brain or body. My goal is to be safe at home and stay positive. I know that my mind and body will benefit: I will be a better problem solver and be more creative around any upcoming challenges.

We’re designed for this.