Honoring Work Identity for Adults with Dementia

September 4, 2020 Amy Conoly, Division Director of Life Enrichment & Memory Care at Enlivant

They say that teachers never retire - once a teacher, always a teacher. Nurses never retire - once a nurse, always a nurse, and so on.

A large part of one's identity is the roles that they've had in their lives. Some of these are family roles such as husband, mother, or sister. Some roles are related to interests such as golfer, knitter, world traveler. One of the strongest roles that people keep, including those in the early to mid-stages of dementia, is related to their work life. If a person starts working in their profession at age 20 and retires at 65, elements of their occupational role will likely stay with them long after they retire. This is something to consider this Labor Day if you are involved in the care of someone living in the earlier stages of dementia and looking for ways to connect and engage with them.

This can be done by honoring titles long after retirement. A retired army officer might still be called "Colonel", or a judge "your Honor", or a doctor or academic professor "Doctor".

For some people honoring routines is an important part of their identity. Someone that was always and early riser for work (first shift worker, baker, etc.) will probably not want to sleep in. In the fall, someone that was a teacher may start "getting ready" for school to begin and want to create lesson plans. It is not unusual for nurses to want to step in and help people.

In addition to acknowledging preferred titles and routines, you can also create memory boxes of mementos related to someone's occupation this Labor Day. Items that a person can touch and look at will bring back memories and help cue the person to be able to talk about their work and its importance. A few items to consider for a senior's memory box include:

  • Name tags or business cards
  • Awards, medals, letters of recognition
  • Photographs
  • Newspaper articles, letters from coworkers/patients/students
  • Tools of the trade - manuals, professional magazines, office supplies, chalk and chalkboard, patient chart facsimile, stethoscope, etc.
Keep in mind that the accuracy of the person's memories is not important. Your main goal in honoring them this Labor Day is to engage them in conversation about a meaningful role in their life. Happy Labor Day to seniors and adults who have dedicated their lives to all trades!