• Anne Huntington

That Poor Thing

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

How many times have you, or others, referred to a person suffering from a serious illness as “poor thing?” Last week, I overheard a conversation between two people talking about just this, “a poor thing,” and it hurtled me into contemplation.

Oh, that poor thing!”


Oh that woman over there, slumped in her wheelchair.”

The questions I wish to raise here are these: Who truly is “that woman over there?” What is her history? What is her name?

The woman mentioned, ever-settled, deep, in her wheelchair, is a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. She was a daughter, nurse, and friend. She raised a family and was active in her church and as a volunteer. She traveled the states and the world. She always preferred a cookbook to a great novel. She experienced the spectrum of emotions. She lost a child at 10 days old and raised 3 others. She was loving, kind, and maddening at times.

Today, this woman suffers from a terminal brain disease, called dementia, probable vascular type. Her memory is not as impaired as one sees in Alzheimer’s disease, but her apathy, difficulties processing information, reasoning, and impaired judgment are more consistent with vascular dementia. She carries some risk factors: she has high blood pressure and cholesterol.

This woman is no longer able to walk, shower, or even use the toilet without assistance. She no longer has interest in cooking or going to her Florida condo. She panics when her husband is out of sight, but when with him, she sits with a vacant stare. She no longer initiates conversation or makes phone calls. All she wants to do is stay in bed and sleep.

Her husband, who she’s been married to for 63 years, believes that to honor his vows means to keep and care for her, at home. Although resistant to bringing in help, he has come to accept this need, after being hospitalized from shear exhaustion. It is very common for spouses of those suffering from dementia to become stressed and worn out; often times they die before those they are caring for, because they have forgotten to take care of themselves.

Although it is extremely sad to watch a loved-one suffer, they are not “poor things.” They are individuals who deserve respect, human contact, and loving care. Dementia is not fussy about who it attacks. When healthy, its victims were our teachers, letter carriers, police officers; they were NASA scientists, and even presidents of the United States. I’ve known many, and have cared for them—when they suffer from infections that lead to the worsening of their dementia, when their behaviors are unmanageable outside a professional care center, and when they are at the end of their lives. I understand that difficult behaviors reflect the area of the person’s diseased brain, their fears, and their inability to process their environment. It’s not personal.

My profession is nursing and I am the nurse director of a geriatric neuropsychiatry unit within an acute care hospital. I am also the daughter of “that poor thing.” I understand people with dementia and their caregivers, families, and friends on a professional level and also on a personal level. I know first hand my mother is far from a poor thing: she has lived a full life; she has many loving people caring for her (helping to keep her clean and safe); and she has resources that allow her to receive excellent healthcare. 

So please don’t feel sorry for her or others with dementia, as when you do, you strip away their individuality.  Instead, be kind, understanding, and compassionate: get into their world.  And, most of all, don’t stop dancing, laughing, and enjoying life with them!

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