Grocery shopping….from the dementia perspective

I wrote this story and used it as the introduction to a dementia-friendly business training Marshfield Area Purple Angels did for our local grocery store.

Most of us might have difficulty understanding what a trip to the grocery store might be like for a person with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Ordinary outings that we take for granted can be confusing, intimidating, and debilitating to someone trying to be independent but overwhelmed by simple tasks. Grocery stores can be especially challenging for individuals with dementia because shopping for groceries is a complex task that requires memory for what is needed, what each item is called and where it is located in the store. 

This story attempts to describe what a trip to the grocery store might be like for someone with dementia.

Imagine that you have early to moderate stage dementia. You are 74 years old. You live alone in the same house you lived in since you were married. Your spouse passed away a few years ago. You have two adult children. One lives near Madison and comes home for a weekend once or twice a month. The other lives out west and comes home around the holidays. You still drive, but your children worry about you and think you should stop driving and start using the cab service more. They have even been hinting that maybe you should sell the house and move into a smaller apartment or into assisted living. But you don’t want to give up your home. And you don’t want to be a burden on anyone. You want to stay independent and take care of yourself for as long as you can. “I can manage,” you say to yourself, “I’m not that old. Sure, I sometimes have problems with my memory but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for the nursing home.”

Since you woke up this morning, you’ve already made 1000 challenging decisions: you managed to make yourself breakfast and you figured out how to run the coffee maker. You got yourself dressed. You can’t remember if it is warm or cold outside, so you just put on the clothes that were laid over the chair next to the bed (the same clothes that you had on yesterday but you don’t remember that).

Today you will go grocery shopping. You know there are things that you need: bread, milk, you want some Swiss cheese and ham from the deli to make sandwiches for lunch, thinking for a moment that was your husband’s favorite and he will like that. But then you suddenly remember that he is gone and you feel a deep sadness over this loss that keeps renewing itself.

You finish your grocery list and decide to get going. But first, where are the car keys? After looking all over for them you eventually find them in the refrigerator. You think to yourself, “Now who on earth put the keys in there?”

Now imagine that you got yourself to the grocery store safely and were able to park the car without any problems. You walk into the store and take a cart and follow the people ahead of you. Things look familiar but there are a lot of people and a lot of noise and its making everything seem confusing in your head. You remember you made a list and begin to look for it. You check your purse, your wallet, your pockets. “Did I even make a list? I am pretty sure I did. Did someone take it?” You see another shopper pushing a cart and reading a shopping list and you think “I bet she took my list. Why would she do that?” but you are too confused and too embarrassed to say anything so you let it go.

You walk up and down aisles of cans and boxes that all look the same to you. You look for pictures on the packaging that give you clues about what the items might be. “Did I need spaghetti sauce? I think I need bread. And I want to make sandwiches for lunch.” You remembered that much. You get the bread and put it in your cart next to the spaghetti sauce. You continue looking for other things that you want or need. The store is so big and they keep moving everything around. Nothing is ever in the same place. You turn down another aisle. This looks familiar. You scan the shelf for items you recognize. “Do I need spaghetti sauce?” Another jar goes in your cart.

You keep looking for the things you need. It feels like you have been in this store for a long time already. You see people who look familiar. Some say hello, some seem to know your name, but you do not know them. You see a man taking things from a box and putting them on a shelf. “Does he work here? Should I ask him for help? I am not sure if I even need help.” He sees you and smiles and asks if he can help you find anything. “Yes,” you reply… “I’m looking for….for…..oh….I want……holes. You know holes?” … The man frowns and shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t know that you are looking for Swiss cheese and you can’t understand why you can’t find the right words to tell him what you want. It’s embarrassing and its confusing. Maybe you should just go home.

You do remember you need to pay for what you have in your cart. You follow other people ahead of you and watch what they do. Every time you come to this store they change the rules on you. “Did you find everything today?” the lady asks and you nod and tell her you did. And luckily no one stole your purse like the last time you were here. Your checkbook is still there, too, but you need a pen. The lady says you don’t have to fill out the check. That’s good because you don’t remember how to do that and you don’t know the name of this store to write on the check anyway. Your items are bagged for you and you take your loaf of bread and two jars of spaghetti sauce and look for the way out. You see other people leaving and you follow them out to the parking lot where you hope your car is where you left it this time, and that nobody has moved it on you. You know you need to get home soon. Your husband and your two young children are there waiting for you.

(c) 2015 by Doug Seubert, Marshfield Area Purple Angels

About Doug Seubert

My name is Doug Seubert and I live in Wisconsin (USA). I am working toward a Masters in public health, and I am the President and CEO of a new non-profit organization: Marshfield Area Purple Angels. My blogs share resources, tools, and information about various public health topics, with a strong emphasis on community health education, effective health communication, and health literacy. I am also the creator of "The End of Life Survival Guide" featuring tips and resources for caregivers of a loved one near the end of life.
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