Rachael Wonderlin ’11 spent hours as a teen volunteering at a skilled nursing facility. One day, a friend remarked she had a gift for working with older adults.
“I didn’t realize at the time that this was a skill,” said Wonderlin, who channeled her talents into a psychology degree from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s in gerontology.
Now a renowned dementia care consultant and author who has taught her trademarked technique to senior living communities worldwide, Wonderlin has been named the UMW Department of Psychology’s 2021 graduate-in-residence. On Thursday, she’ll present a free, public lecture entitled “Everything You Need to Know About Dementia Caregiving Communication” in the Hurley Convergence Center at 4 p.m.
Wonderlin, who grew up in New Jersey, came to Mary Washington with plans to pursue a career in medicine, but a Psychology of Aging course changed her mind.
“I always loved working with older adults,” said Wonderlin, who created an “Adopt a Grandparent” program through UMW’s Community Outreach and Resources, or COAR, planning activities for local residents at skilled nursing facilities.
After earning a master’s degree from University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Wonderlin worked at several dementia care communities, where she discovered that traditional ways of communicating felt outdated and often confused those living with cognitive impairment. Instead, she developed her own technique – called Embracing Their Reality – which encourages caregivers to meet people with dementia where they are.
“For example, someone asks, ‘Where’s my mom?’ and you know that she passed away years earlier,” she said. “Rather than correcting the person, you’d reply, ‘Where do you think she is?’ Whatever they say is the right answer.” Wonderlin’s clients say the method has led to breakthroughs with their loved ones and residents.
She has created a blog, YouTube channel and podcast to share her experiences and educate caregivers, and written two books on dementia care published by Johns Hopkins University Press; a third is due out this winter. She also launched Dementia by Day, a consulting business to help senior living communities as far away as South Africa design their own programs.
A former child actor who began doing improv while at UMW, Wonderlin has also taught workshops in the art form to caregivers. “These techniques are a helpful way to communicate and enjoy spending time with people living with dementia, especially those who are further along with the disease,” she told NPR in a 2018 interview.
Wonderlin has come a long way since college, but Mary Washington still holds a special place in her heart and mind. A UMW Outstanding Alumni Award Recipient, she often returns to speak in psychology classes on aging.
“My students find her lectures informative and inspirational,” said Associate Professor of Psychological Science Virginia Mackintosh, who has even applied Wonderlin’s teachings when communicating with her own mother who has dementia. “It’s been a gift for me and my family.”
Tomorrow, during the graduate-in-residence program – established in 1995 to introduce psychology majors to alumni working in the field – Wonderlin will bestow another gift.
“Naysayers will always be there to let you know what you can’t do or accomplish,” she plans to tell college students on the brink of their own careers. “Don’t let other people’s expectations and limitations hold you back.”