Lose on the Left, Retain on the Right - No this isn't about politics!

“Lose on the left, retain on the right.” Did you think I was talking about politics? No way!

What I’m referring to is what happens in the brain of someone who has dementia.

But let’s back up. I want to talk about children. Aren’t 18 month old toddlers just precious? (Well most of the time.) If you look at a brain scan of an 18 month old you will see areas that are not fully developed. No surprise there! Clearly they are not capable of living on their own and they lack many skills. But no one looks at an 18 month old child and sees their limits. We see possibilities! We focus on what they CAN do – not on what they can’t do.

Did you know that a brain scan of a person with dementia looks a lot like that of the 18 month old? And yet – we tend to focus only on what that person CAN’T do. Understandably, it is easy to become frustrated and deeply saddened by their loss of skills.

Teepa Snow in her Positive Approach to Care TM teaches that if we focus solely on the loss of skills we miss a huge opportunity to provide meaningful moments of engagement, happiness and connection. Teepa talks about “Losing on the left and retaining on the right”. By that she means that most all people with dementia lose language, vocabulary and speech which is stored and controlled on the left side of the brain.

But here’s the “gift” as she calls it. They retain the following – located on the right side of the brain.

1. The ability to engage in social (automatic) chit chat. “How are you?” etc.
2. Forbidden words including swear words, ugly words, sex talk and even racial slurs.
3. The ability to respond to music, poetry, prayer and rhythm.
4. Rhythmic movement clapping, dancing.

Why are these retained? VERY simply put- these things are hooked to emotions.

Our opportunity, as we navigate the challenging waters of caring for people with dementia, is to learn to use the gifts retained on the right – the social chit chat, the music and the rhythmic movement to stay connected, to maintain our relationships and to provide meaningful activities.

We wouldn’t dream of expecting a toddler to function beyond their skill level. We know we’re the ones that have to plan ahead, to adapt, to change what we are doing to ensure their happiness and safety. Successful care for them means we meet them at their level, follow their lead and applaud and focus on their skills. When we do that they “light up”. You could say they shine.

People living with dementia are not toddlers and should not be treated like children. But as Teepa Snow says; 

"In the right setting and with the right care everyone can shine.”