A different view of the vulnerability of aging.
She was a fanatic about her newspaper. You know, one of those people who don’t cancel the paper even when on vacation. They were saved until she could read them on her return. Travel was an important outlet that satisfied her curiosity about the world. She was interested in everyone’s views, especially if the discussion resulted in a debate. As a senior, she attended university classes in Quebec to improve her French and to gain a deeper understanding of the history of the province she loved. She had numerous friends of various ages and backgrounds. She was both a good friend and an interesting person who like to be engaged with people. This active mind was part of a persona that was also physically active in the world of fitness and golf.
A quiet thief, however, was slowly changing this curious mind into one that would feel safe only in her own home with picture albums as her only reading companion. No longer would there be a debate. In its place, a select number of stories repeated themselves throughout a visit. Long-term memory was her only defense in covering a mind that was slowly slipping away. Over time, and after some unsafe behaviours that resulted in an involuntary admission to a hospital, a diagnosis of Alzheimer-type dementia was made.
How do you engage a person with this type of diminished capacity and how do you provide an environment that is nurturing? Limited parts of the person you knew are present, but a big piece is missing. How do you nurture a relationship with someone who is only a shadow of the person you once knew?
The first step is to recognize that the loss is real and without remission. Acceptance of this fact takes time. Give yourself permission to not believe, and to be angry about the unfairness of the situation. As you grieve the loss of capacity, realize that it is really just like a death – quite a cruel death at that.
Next, providing a nurturing environment is critical. Their physical needs must be respectfully provided. Appropriate physical care is really linked to their psychological care – how caregivers assist with the daily tasks of getting ready for the day is an important human connection, enhancing psychological health. Taking care of their possessions is also an opportunity to demonstrate respect. So often, items seem to be ‘lost’ or ‘misplaced’ (according to our rules), but to them, there is no wrong place – socks can be carefully and meticulously stowed in a magazine rack just as well as in a drawer.
Thirdly, be a part of the person’s life and be an advocate for them. This means that the world is brought to them at whatever level is possible for them….from just sitting with them, walking with them, sharing the garden with them, to taking car rides …just share the world with them. At the centre of this sharing process is the enjoyment of being with the person.
And what can these people bring to a relationship if they are only a shadow of the person you once knew? As I engage my mother in conversations during our walk through the garden, she smiles as she recognizes landmarks along the way. Her recognition of these familiar sights is our way of having a conversation…her smile is one of triumph….for a moment, she is back! Her life is lived in the present moment because she doesn’t think of what could be or what was. And being with her means that I have to live in the present moment as well, appreciating the intricate structure of a concrete wall, and noticing the flight of a bird that I would have otherwise missed. Living in the present and taking moments to enjoy the everyday things is one of her gifts to me. She also enjoys listening to the ‘oldies’ station on the radio – my wife and son are less enthusiastic about my choice of this station, but my mother, who has always enjoyed rock ‘n roll music, does not make any attempt to change the station – rather, she keeps time to the music and looks totally relaxed. Her gift to me is this moment of shared joy as we drive together.
Originally published in the ‘Tri-Cities News’ as a voluntary contribution to the community from Arthur Rathgeber.
The contents of this article are the property of Willow Grove Counselling, Inc. and further reproduction is given through written permission only. Copyright © 2012