There’s a radio program that I listen to occasionally called “Radiolab”. They did a slightly updated version recently of a story they originally broadcast back in 2010 as “The Bus Stop”, which the new version was called “A Bus to Nowhere”. It’s about how care facilities are using an unusual tool to help Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients: fake bus stops.
What it’s about is when a person has either of those conditions, they sometimes get in a state where they have a compulsion to go home. Their husband or wife is waiting for them, their childen are waiting for them, etc, so they leave the facility. Often, they’ll get lost, frightened and hurt.
What the facility learned is that when this happens, the person will seek out a bus stop because they know the bus will get them back to their home. So they built a fake bus stop outside at the edge of the property. Now when someone tries to go home, they go to the bus stop, sit down, and patiently wait for the bus that never comes. The effect is it gives them time to calm down, think a little more, and sometimes, they forget that they were trying to leave. Other facilities have adopted this method, with some of the fake bus stops being inside the building. A simple bench with a fake bus schedule. Even the indoor versions are real enough to the person looking for them.
Before this, one method was to restrain the people or lock them up because there wasn’t a better way to deal with their need to leave. Now, the employees can gently retrieve the person and guide them back to their current and familiar surroundings.
I think I lived this today.
As I was leaving the place I went to first during work, I pulled up to a stop light just a block away and there is a woman standing next to the car in front of me, talking very loud to the driver. I can't really hear what she's saying, but I think it's some kind of argument, so I figure it was some kind of pedestrian/car conflict like she got cut off and I'll be able to just right on past once the light turns green.
Once it does, the driver leaves and I start moving forward, but I can’t go very fast because she’s still standing there, and then the light changes quick, forcing me to stop. She then starts talking loudly to me through my window. I’m dragged into this and I didn’t really want to be.
She’s saying she’s trying to get to a doctor’s office, nobody will help her, why did the bus driver give her the wrong directions, listing her medical issues, etc. Over and over, all at that same loud volume where she’s almost crying. I’m trying to find the place she’s looking for on my phone which I think is about a mile away, but she’s still going on, making it difficult. I try to direct her back to the place I was at, but she doesn’t understand and she just wants to get to where she needed to go.
Finally, I have to get out of my car and try to get her to walk just a block back where I had been, which was a county-run medical office that’s got a much better chance of understanding what she’s saying. Maybe they know what she’s looking for. Then the guy behind me starts honking his horn because I’m blocking him. That doesn’t help, buddy.
Now I really am dragged into this. I get her to stand on the sidewalk long enough so I can move my car into a parking lot, then get her to follow me. She does, making the same complaints over and over again. I’m getting frustrated because I am trying to help her and have to keep telling her “you’re right, this isn’t the place you’re trying to get to, but these people should be able to help you”. I’m saying it in just as loud a voice as hers because of my frustration. Over and over from both sides.
We get to the reception desk, she goes right back into it. The employees are listening to this, wide-eyed and uncertain. Part of it is they don’t understand why if she and I walked in together, why isn’t she able to get where she needs to go? I’m her driver, right? Nope. She was standing in the middle of the street, stopping traffic, trying to get help.
After a few more minutes, they’ve figured out where she’s trying to get to, another government office that is close to her destination. I know where that is and realize I’ll need to drive her there.
This is the point where the woman begins to calm down. She recognizes that someone’s finally going to help her, but I don’t realize she’s made the change until hours later after I’ve had time to think about it. We walk back to my car and she gets even calmer, and begins apologizing about how she was acting. The trip only takes about five minutes. We go past the “landmark” she was desperate to get to before and a few blocks later, we’re at the office she really needed to be at. She tells me that now she knows where she is, she knows how to get back home from there. She sounds confident about it, so I accept that she can. I give her the spare cane I have in my car for the times when my foot decides to start acting up, then make sure she gets in the door, and I’m on my way.
It isn't until those hours later that I remember the Radiolab episode about the fake bus stop and begin to wonder if maybe she is in the first stages of developing either one of those conditions. The symptoms were there: confusion and anger about being in an area that she didn't recognize, complaints about nobody helping her and telling her the wrong directions for the bus ride, and then when someone does help, calm returns.
I will probably never see her again. When she mentioned a few times during the ride that she wished there was a way to pay me back, including one idea that’s a little friendlier than is appropriate for this situation, I suggested she “pay it forward” for the next person. She’ll do that. I’ll add “if she remembers” because she might not.
Though my obligation to her is done at this point, I wonder if I should go back to that location and verify that she really did go into one of the offices. If so, maybe pass on my thoughts about her developing Alzheimer’s or Dementia.
Through this, I know I wouldn’t be able to make it as a caregiver for these patients. My patience for people that interrupt me has decreased over the years and my frustration level has increased due to the number of times I’ve thought, “If you’d just let me finish talking, you’d have your answer.”
And all of this happened because one stop light turned red again quicker than it should. The guy behind me wouldn’t have helped her. Would any of the six or seven other cars behind him? Did that one stop light turn red so that just the right person would have been forced to help her, even if he didn’t want to?