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Behavioral Challenges: Sharing the word of God, part 2

This story is continued from Sharing the word of God, part 1.

We live near a high school. Adults are not allowed on campus unless they have some business at the school. All visitors must sign in at the office before entering the grounds. Robert worked at the school district for over 10 years before he retired. Naturally, it made sense to him that he should be able to visit campus to give away the books he’d collected without having to check in at the office. Students needed as much aid and assistance as the rest of us! 

Unwelcome visitors

The first time the police delivered Robert home after they found him trespassing on school grounds, I behaved as a parent might with a recalcitrant teenager.

“Do you understand what you did wrong?”

“Do you want to be arrested?”

“Are you ever going to do it again?”

I felt embarrassed and exasperated.

I explained Robert’s recent diagnosis to the police. In response, the officer sported the flat affect policemen usually wear when faced with a human condition the law is ill-equipped to handle. His look said, “My job does not allow me to relate to you personally.”

In the presence of the police, I tried to reason with Robert about the seriousness of the situation as though he had access to all his faculties. My response was very schizophrenic. Why act as if Robert could understand? Why make a show of it for the police?

I’ve thought about this a lot. 

When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, we live for a very long time in an “in-between place.” Intellectually, we know that our person can no longer function normally in the world. He is not the competent adult he once was.

But even with this understanding, we still experience a bit of cognitive misalignment, a bit of magical thinking. “If I can just make him accept this small thing, he will adjust his behavior.” “If I explain the consequences of his behavior simply and logically, Robert will fully grasp the seriousness of the situation and he won’t go on campus anymore.”

I had not yet embraced the new normal of our lives. I had not caught up with our new reality. In retrospect, I should have worked harder to make the police understand, but I wasn’t yet able to do that.

A heavy-handed response

I could have asked the police officers what they thought could be done. Wearing full police gear, including their holstered guns, the police brought a 70+-year-old man home and threatened him with arrest. The whole episode would have been farcical if it wasn’t so sad.

Robert nodded his understanding about the rules of the school and pledged to respect them from that point forward. But no sooner had the police left than he wavered in his commitment and insisted that he had done nothing wrong, that he was only trying to help.

I asked, “Do you think it would be okay if a cult leader came to the school to distribute their texts and propaganda?”

“No, but this is different. I’m sharing the word of God which has really helped me. I think this will help students too.”

Not getting through

Robert never understood why he was forbidden to go on campus. He did express some concern about the prospect of being arrested, but the worry was fleeting. He just couldn’t help himself.

By the third police visit, I had registered Robert with the department’s Safe Return Program in the event that he was lost. However, the law does not consider trespass “being lost,” so Robert was never “safely returned.” He was always returned by a fully equipped policeman wearing a holstered gun. The second police visit was an annoyance, the third felt like harassment.

Don’t get me wrong, I did understand how inappropriate Robert’s behavior was. But I was working full-time. How on earth was I going to keep working and manage my “free-range” husband?

This story is continued in Sharing the Word of God, Part 3.

Since we had our encounter with the police, Petaluma People Services Center launched a new program, Specialized Assistance for Everyone (SAFE). The goal of the SAFE program is to provide crisis response for our most vulnerable community members without engaging law enforcement officers unless strictly necessary. I wish the program had been available when Robert was still on his daily walkabouts.

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