Life Lessons from Dementia

James 1:27 New International Version (NIV)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

 

Over the past 9 months I’ve had the honor of getting to know, serve, and love people who have dementia/Alzheimer’s.  My beloved beautiful Grandma, and Grandma-in-laws, also have/had the diseases.  This is part of what inspired one of my songs: Legacy of Love.

Some people talk about how terrible of a disease it is, and how sad it is getting old.  Trust me when I say, I’ve experienced the reasons people say this.  Changing personalities, difficulty communicating, loss of life skills, anxiety-driven suspicions and anger are only the tip of the iceberg. So I agree, but only to a certain point.

I’ve seen how God can actually use dementia to redeem the world around us.

Personally, working with people with dementia has taught me a new level of compassionate, Christ-like love.  Caring for many people up until their last day on Earth, I’ve learned the value of life up until the very end.

They may change dramatically, but there is still life to be lived and loving relationships to be continued. Even if they forget exactly who you are, you can still have years of enjoyment.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from people with Dementia… 

These lessons can help caregivers, but also can be applied to the rest of life for every person as well:

Social connection is essential for every person.

People with Dementia still get lonely. Even if they forget who you are, it’s important to spend time with them. The emotional memory makes a difference in their day.  Sometimes people change to be almost unrecognizable, but there’s always a way to connect.

Certain things are almost universal:Alzwalk

  • Smiles and laughter
  • Love for family/friends
  • Reminiscing about earlier times
  • Looking at photos
  • Enjoying a sweet treat together
  • Enjoying good music and dancing
  • Enjoying the scent of flowers, delicious food, perfumes, etc.
  • Enjoying the beauty of nature or art
  • Caring for animals or children
  • The satisfaction from purposeful work, such as setting a table, cleaning, baking… even if it’s not quite perfect anymore.
  • Friendly touch: back-rubs, holding hands, hugs

Kindness goes a long way!

People that have no (or confused) memory of who I am or how they know me can still remember that I’m a person they want to be around. They remember that I care, I’m playful and fun, and that I’m full of joy and love! May this be true for every person I meet.

Most of communication is nonverbal.

Communicate accordingly.

Probably about half of the residents I work with don’t have clear verbal communication (either jumbled words, repetitious phrases, not understanding others, or mostly yes/no responses). I can still sense the emotions behind what they’re trying to say, and have a meaningful “conversation” …comforting the sad/confused/anxious, laughing with the joyful, and guiding through next steps if they have a need.

A friendly approach (slow, non-confrontational, not hovering over, greeting) helps tear down defenses. This is made SO obvious by people with dementia (resisting help, aggressive responses, etc.), but emotional defenses are common in everyone, the rest of us just hide it better. If you approach people with respect and care, like you’re on their side, they’re more likely to treat you as an ally rather than an enemy.

Smile! Laugh! Dance! Use friendly touch to show love and care. 

Respect works.

Any. other. way. does. not.

Treat adults like adults, even if you have to guide them through things step-by-step. Scolding, belittling, or patronizing is offensive to any adult (no matter the age or ability), and puts up walls that prevents people from working as a team.

It’s important to get to know people as people, rather than treating them as means to an end. Getting to know someone’s preferences and personality can go a long way towards interacting with them positively.

People like to have choices. If you can help it, always give a choice. This especially helps people who feel like they don’t have much control over their situation. It tells them that what they think, want, and value, matters.

The desire to be useful never goes away.  Allowing people to help, teach, and guide you brings joy at any age. Don’t do for another what they can do for themselves. If they need help, do it with them.

It’s ok to live life at a slower pace.

People have told me I have a lot of patience. Working with people with dementia has grown this fruit of the Spirit exponentially. It’s a beautiful thing.

But, just as important… in this fast-paced culture, they remind me to slow down. To take time to experience things fully through the senses. To really appreciate sweet treats, a nice walk outside, and the process of gardening.  This is something I need.  They help me in this way.

Alzwalk2

Your life doesn’t lose value at the end.

Think about where you think the value of a life comes from.

Is it simply the ability to work?

Or just bring joy?

Can it come from simply existing and so teaching another person to love better? 

Dying well is important.

Hospice can sometimes bring more life to the last part of a loved one’s life. I’ve seen countless people go from totally out of it, to being able to participate in activities and conversations, once hospice gets involved.  It’s a really great service that can help make the end of life better for everyone.

I’ve learned more about the phases of the end of life through this process, and how much better it is to walk through each step with a dying person, accepting however they want/need to walk through it.

We’re all going to die. If given a choice, how would you like to enter eternity? How would your loved one like to? If we face the reality of death early, it will help us to live abundantly and die with grace. 

John 10:10 New International Version (NIV)
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I believe with certainty that if you accept Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the cross, death will be a door to everlasting beauty, joy, and goodness. Will I see you there?

Romans 10:9 New International Version (NIV)
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
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