Driving Mr. Jim

By Kevin Woo | January 4, 2016

A few weeks ago my friend, Mary, called. We did the usual chitchat about work, kids, her cat, my dogs, and her father-in-law.

For the past year Mary, and her husband, Glenn, have been full-time caregivers for Glenn’s father, Jim, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Each Sunday the three take a long drive after church.

As they drive through town, or to the countryside, Jim tells stories of his days at the VFW Hall, comments about various parks where he visited with friends, and reminisces about places where he and his wife spent time. Jim repeats the stories week after week.

“I got so tired of hearing the same stories,” Mary said. “Nothing ever changed. I knew that as we turned a corner we were going to hear the same story as last week, and the week before that. It got really annoying.”

Then Mary had an epiphany. A few weeks ago, for the first time in years, Jim’s stories didn’t bother her. Mary listened with more compassionate ears.

“What changed your mind?” I asked.

“I thought about my father,” said Mary. “My dad died five years ago, and as I listened to Jim it occurred to me that I’d give anything to have my dad in the backseat talking to me. I realized that I was focusing on myself, and my needs instead of understanding what Glenn and Jim are experiencing.”

“I asked myself, ‘Why am I fighting Jim? If he wants to believe the grass is blue, does it really do any good for me to argue with him?’”

A person with Alzheimer’s may repeat things because they’re looking for comfort, security or something familiar. A cause for the behavior is the individual’s desire to make sense of the world. As people with Alzheimer’s lose their ability to cope with environmental influences it’s important for caregivers to regularly monitor their comfort, and anticipate needs.

What you can do

The Alzheimer’s Association offers these suggestions for repetitive conversation and behavior:

  • Look for the reason behind the repetition – is the person trying to communicate something?
  • Focus on the emotion, not the behavior – think about how he or she is feeling, not doing.
  • Turn the action or behavior into an activity – if the person is rubbing his hand across a table, give them a rag and ask for help with dusting.
  • Stay calm and be patient – don’t argue or try to use logic. The person may not remember that he/she asked the question already.
  • If the person is looking for an answer, offer it.
  • Engage the person in an activity – it’s possible that the person is bored. Create opportunities to engage in activities
  • Accept the behavior, and work with it.
  • Stay connected with support groups, message boards, and other caregivers


6 Replies to “Driving Mr. Jim”

  1. I had this same epiphany with my mother somewhere along the journey through Alzheimer’s and learned to change my expectations and stop focusing on what I wanted that couldn’t be any longer, I learned to focus on only the simple things that were left to enjoy with my mother. Sometimes that was just a stroll outside with the sun on our faces, but in the moment that was enough.

  2. What a great post. My wife and I cared for her mother who had sundowners, a type of dementia that worsened at night. She was up all night wandering through the house. In the morning she would tell us where she’d been, and who came to visit her. Out of desperation my wife would make her a bag of fresh popcorn in the evening. It settled her down and she would sit quietly and munch on her popcorn. The visions were greatly reduced. And our stress levels went down too.

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