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Woodworking with Alzheimer's

Taking a “look first” approach

Text and photo by Tom Hintz

Posted – 3-12-2013

One of the first things I thought about after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's was how it might impact my woodworking. Though I had been noticing issues with memory I was not seeing problems with my ability to run the machines and tools used in woodworking. But one concern kept coming to mind originating in a survey I did years ago.

I taught myself long ago to look at the blade before reaching anywhere near it. I heard of too many people "forgetting" it was there. That habit is paying off now.
Click image to enlarge

That Safety Survey, done in 2001 highlighted a surprising cause for some of the worst injuries that in light of the Alzheimer's diagnosis was becoming more of a concern for me. Of all of the people that suffered injuries sustained through contact with a spinning blade or cutter, a majority of those responding blamed themselves, often saying something on the order of “forgetting” the blade was there when they reached for a piece of wood.

While it is easy to associate the word “forgetting” with Alzheimer's I doubt that it is that simple in these cases. I suspect this kind of “forgetting” is more complacency than anything. They knew the blade was still there but for that one moment they blanked out on it and put their hand into the blade on the way to retrieving a piece of wood. Those same people were nearly unanimous in that they had done the thing that got them hurt many times in the past without injury and just got careless. Reaching in near the blade grew more commonplace for them and their mind kept reducing the perceived danger. If we stop and think about it we all may be doing this to some degree.

Back when I did that survey that revelation struck a chord with me and I began conditioning myself to look at the blade before I did anything on the table saw. I forced myself to learn to use this “look first” step and that habit continues today. Now with the Alzheimer's added to the situation I am purposely making sure that I am never in a hurry to do anything in the shop. I have a good level of confidence in my habits in the shop but taking the time to be sure just makes sense, Alzheimer's or not.

Now that I am aware of the Alzheimer's I am taking a bit more time in the shop to think through everything I do before I do them. I have noticed that it really is not adding as much time to a project as I thought. Most things are not that different from what I did before, just a little more deliberate. I have always worked at being safe and that helped me in developing procedures and sequences of doing things that have become habit and have made me safer.

Adding the “look first” step certainly makes sense in light of my Alzheimer's but appears to be a good practice for anyone who wants to be safer. I never saw the benefit of hurrying in woodworking and now with Alzheimer's in the picture that kind of increased pace is a non-issue for me. Do me a favor and try it yourself. I suspect that you need not be hurrying in your shop either and you also have the time to look first.

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