What Can the Horse Whisperer and Mr. Rogers Tell Us About Caregiving?

In 2011, Robert Redford produced and directed the film The Horse Whisperer. It was based on a real story about Burt Brannaman whose unconventional approach to breaking horses captured the attention of many people like me who know little or nothing about them. My crude interpretation of his method is that he establishes a relationship of trust with horses. He does this gradually in small steps by connecting with them in a non-threatening way. The result is that he achieves success without forcing them into submission but gaining their trust. He thinks this is a gentler and better way to achieve the same end.

In the past year, Mr. Rogers has also been the subject of two films. Each in different ways captures Rogers’ approach to relating to children (as well as adults if we take It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood literally). It strikes me that his approach with children was very similar to that of Brannaman’s with horses. In both cases, the men are keenly sensitive to the little things that can frighten or comfort horses or children. That includes what one says, how it is said, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language.

As I think about it, both Brannaman and Mr. Rogers have something to tell us about caregiving. As people with dementia decline, the world around them must seem strange. I know that Kate is quite insecure and looks to me for security. Even situations that have been routine for years can be a bit frightening. Yesterday, I took Kate to a hair appointment. Recently she has had trouble getting into the chair for her shampoo and expressed her feelings in a loud audible way. I helped her into the chair the last two appointments. That has worked well. This time she wanted me to stay with her and to hold my hand. During the past year, I dropped her bi-weekly massages and her pedicures because she was frightened by them.

I say this to suggest that Kate’s failure to understand the situations she faces is similar to the way horses and children react when they are confronted by something new. I have learned the hard way that I need to interact with Kate the way Brannaman relates to horses and Roger interacted with children. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. I did yesterday and was fortunate to make a comeback when I returned to a more sensitive approach.

Yesterday she wanted to be more independent, and I have grown accustomed to doing more things for her. That didn’t mix well. She seemed especially slow in getting ready for the day. She spent almost twenty-five minutes brushing her teeth and washing her arms and face. The washing of her arms and face is normal, but she took longer to do it this time. Several times when she was brushing her teeth and showering, she told me to stop helping her and said, “I am not stupid.” I apologized and backed off. It wasn’t just that I changed what I said. I also changed the tone of my voice and facial expressions. She is very good at reading those. I remained with her but didn’t offer any suggestions. I did help dry her. She appreciated that.

As she often does, she wanted to rest a little. I left her in bed for about thirty minutes before returning to see if she wanted to get up. I was careful not to suggest that she should get up or that I was pushing her. Fortunately, she said she was ready for her clothes. I only helped her when she wanted help.

After she was dressed, she wanted to lie down again. I told her that would be fine. I put on the album from the musical Annie and went to the kitchen. I returned fifteen minutes later to see if she was ready for lunch. She was in a good humor and ready to get up. From that point on everything went smoothly. One would never have guessed that she had been upset with me at all. It took almost two hours from the time I went in to get her up until we left, but it paid off. Rushing her only makes things worse. I know that well but didn’t approach her that way from the beginning.

It was clear from the time she got up that she was moving slowly. I believe if I had begun with a gentler approach, we wouldn’t have had a problem at all. I was impatient at her slowness and the fact that she spent so much time washing her face and arms when she was about to get in the shower. That didn’t make sense to me, but that was not what mattered. It probably made sense to her because she couldn’t remember that she was going to take a shower. At any rate, I have learned that it pays to be in sync with her mood and desires and move from there. I think Brannaman and Mr. Rogers would agree.